The History of Food as Medicine
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The History of Food as Medicine

We’ve been turning to food as a powerful approach to health and healing for centuries. Here’s why.

By Meghan Rabbitt

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When Sudha Raj, Ph.D., R.D.N., a professor in the department of nutrition and food studies at Syracuse University, considers the many ways food can be used to optimize health and promote healing, she thinks of Hippocrates’ famous quote: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

“Cultures across the world have been turning to food to help them heal since ancient times,” says Raj. “There are entire traditions built around food.” In fact, migrating tribes focused on food sources when they decided where to settle, adds Elizabeth Somer, M.A., R.D. “Even when we were living in caves or rock shelters, we were identifying local foods that were good or bad, tasty or poisonous—and that part of the culture passed down from generation to generation,” she says. “This food history soon expanded to the belief that food could treat ailments.”

There are a number of reasons why this belief proved to be true: The foods we eat can help determine whether or not we stay healthy as we get older, and can even help us fix things like nutrient deficiencies and chronic internal inflammation that can cause disease, says Josh Axe, D.N.M., D.C., C.N.S., a doctor of natural medicine, chiropractor and clinical nutritionist. “There are a number of ways foods can protect us against disease and slow the effects of aging,” he says. Here are a few of the ways foods can both optimize your health and help you heal:


Food can … calm chronic inflammation.

By now, you’ve heard that inflammation is the root cause of almost every disease we deal with these days, from heart conditions and diabetes to cognitive decline and even cancer. Your body’s inflammatory response is actually a good thing; it’s what your immune system does when it comes in contact with a germ, virus or some other threat to your health. However, a nutrient-deficient, sugar-rich diet and unhealthy lifestyle habits prompt near-constant inflammation, causing the kind of chronic inflammation that leads to disease. The good news is that certain foods can stop this unhealthy inflammatory response, says Raj. “Vegetables and fruits contain powerful anti-inflammatory nutrients that can help to heal the body.”

blood sugar

Food can … balance blood sugar levels.

When you eat, the body makes insulin to help move the glucose from your food into your cells so it can be used for energy or stored for later. However, if you eat too much food—and especially if you consume too many glucose-rich foods (read: too much sugar)—your body can struggle to make enough insulin to move that glucose, and it can build up in your bloodstream. This can lead to diabetes. However, food can be a powerful way to regulate your blood sugar naturally, ultimately helping you stave off or treat diabetes. Leafy greens and other non-starchy veggies, whole grains, legumes and lean protein are all great foods to help balance blood sugar, says Raj.

toxinsFood can … detoxify the body and help you eliminate toxins.

Many of the ailments we deal with today are due to a buildup of toxins from both the food we eat and the environment in which we live. And here’s the good news: You don’t need to do a juice cleanse or buy a small army of expensive supplements to “detox,” as some people would have you believe. Your body is well-equipped to eliminate toxins on its own—and certain foods can help you enhance that natural process, says Raj. Sulfur-containing foods like broccoli, onions and garlic have been shown to be particularly helpful when it comes to enhancing your body’s excretion of heavy metals. Also, make sure you’re drinking plenty of water, which aids digestion and absorption of nutrients, and also helps your body get rid of what it doesn’t need.

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To learn more about the health benefits of eating plant-based foods read “Eat Yourself Healthy on a Plant-Based Diet.”



Food as Medicine

From mitigating disease to managing stress, proper nutrition is key to a healthy lifestyle.

Check out our Food As Medicine series to learn more about eating right, for you.

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