“Let food be thy medicine and let medicine by thy food”  ~Hippocrates

While there’s no real evidence that this was stated by Hippocrates, it’s the concept that has been touted as a way to strive for eating. But what does “food as medicine” actually mean?

A different way to think about food

You often think about food as something that fills your belly. It has calories and macronutrients – protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Food keeps the rumbles at bay, and growling to a minimum. Feed the beast!

However, what if you adjust how you think about how food can work for you?

What if you thought about food as a communication tool? Consider that food is a way to communicate with your body about how you want it to react.

Food communicates how you want your body to respond.

Food communicates how you want to express emotions. It provides the elements needed to teach your body how to react.

It sounds wacky, right? Thinking about food as a communication tool sounds like space age talk. Yet it is well established in nutritional biology that the components in food influence the way your cells behave. Food, or rather the substances in food, influence your thoughts, your emotional status, and how your immune system works.

food as medicine

How does this communication happen?

Aside from protein, fat, and carbohydrates food has components that send signals through your body. These substances, referred to as phytonutrients or phytochemicals, impact the way your body behaves.

Phytonutrients are plant “chemicals.” They do not have calories, thus they do not fit into the macronutrient model. No protein. No fat. No carbohydrates. They are actually not absolutely necessary for survival. Yet they do, however, act as a way to protect and prevent diseases.

How can food as medicine work for you?

Here are a few ways that phytonutrients work for us:

  • Antioxidants. They protect each cell of your body by reducing cellular damage. This is also known as oxidative stress. You may have heard of antioxidants such as polyphenols, carotenoids, allyl sulfides, and flavonoids. These antioxidants are found in every day foods such as onions, garlic, blueberries, elderberries, carrots, and tea.
  • Hormones. Some phytonutrients imitate hormones, thus reducing the way impact of estrogen. This is primarily whole forms of soy such as edamame.
  • Stimulate enzymes. Phytonutrients can stimulate enzymes to work more efficiently. These can include indoles found in broccoli, kale, cabbage and Brussel sprouts.
  • Impact gene replication. Many various phytonutrients impact the way your genes replicate themselves. This means food can protect you from carcinogens and the development of various types of cancer. These are found in foods such as ginger, turmeric, and cayenne pepper.
  • Anti-microbial effects. Some phytonutrients, such as allium found in garlic and onion exhibit properties that inhibit the growth of various microbes throughout the body. These can be specifically influence bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract.

This is just a smidgen of the thousand or so phytonutrients found in plant foods. While these substances are not necessary for survival, they are beneficial for optimal health. You need water to survive. You need food to survive. Yet you need a variety of phytonutrients to survive well.

While balancing calories and macronutrients are important, they are only the beginning of a well balanced diet. Start with the way you think about food – what it provides for you, and how it can work in your favor.