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Can Food Act as Medicine? All You Need to Know

Health + Wellness
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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.

Antioxidants protect cells from damage that may otherwise lead to disease (5Trusted Source).

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).

Fiber

Fiber is an essential part of a healthy diet. It not only promotes proper digestion and elimination but also feeds the beneficial bacteria in your gut (10Trusted Source).

Thus, high-fiber foods like vegetables, beans, grains, and fruits help protect against disease, decrease inflammation, and boost your immune system (11Trusted Source).

On the other hand, low-fiber diets are associated with an increased risk of illnesses, including colon cancer and stroke (12, 13Trusted Source, 14Trusted Source, 15Trusted Source).

Protein and Healthy Fats

The protein and fat in whole, nutritious foods play various critical roles in your body.

Amino acids — the building blocks of protein — aid immune function, muscle synthesis, metabolism, and growth, while fats provide fuel and help absorb nutrients (16Trusted Source, 17Trusted Source).

Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in foods like fatty fish, help regulate inflammation and are linked to improved heart and immune health (18Trusted Source).

Summary

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.

These processed foods harm your gut bacteria and promote insulin resistance, chronic inflammation, and overall disease risk (19Trusted Source).

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).

Additionally, a study on worldwide mortality and disease showed that in 2017, 11 million deaths and 255 million disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) were likely due to poor diet (21Trusted 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).

Other eating patterns shown to safeguard against disease include plant-based, whole-food-based, and paleo diets (26Trusted Source, 27Trusted 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.

Summary

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.

Eschewing conventional treatments like chemotherapy for alternative, unproven diets can worsen diseases or lead to death (37Trusted Source, 38, 39Trusted Source).

Summary

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.

Summary

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.

A nutrient-dense diet of whole foods has been shown to prevent and even treat or reverse many chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease.

Keep in mind that you should not rely on food to replace traditional medicine.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Healthline.

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