Using Food as Medicine

Using diet and exercise to treat medical ailments

by Abbie Pumarejo | Mon, February 27, 2017

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” - Hippocrates


The Greek physician Hippocrates was born in 460 BC and is credited as the Father of Medicine. What set him apart from other physicians of the time was his belief that diseases were caused naturally, not because of superstition and gods. He was able to separate the discipline of medicine from religious beliefs, arguing that disease was a product of a person’s diet, environment and living habits and not a punishment inflicted onto humans by the gods. 


Hippocrates often used lifestyle modifications such as diet and exercise to treat diseases such as diabetes and obesity, and inspired the development of what we call Lifestyle Medicine today. Lifestyle Medicine is at the forefront of taking one’s health into one’s hands. For example, in Southern California, the Loma Linda University School of Medicine now offers specialized training for its resident physicians in Lifestyle Medicine--a formal subspecialty in using food to treat diseases. According to a World Health Organization study, 80 percent of deaths from heart disease and stroke are caused by lifestyle choices such as tobacco use, lack of exercise and decreasing consumption of fruits and vegetables. 


In this vein, if a diet is high in certain elements, or lacking in others, this is when the body is affected. Food is becoming medicine. This sounds so simple, but in reality, humans are creatures of habit, and one of the most debilitating habits facing modern society is its addiction to sugar.

Dr. Mark Hyman, American physician and best selling author explains that a study reported by the American Council on Nutrition showed that the human brain response to sugar via high glycemic foods (think processed foods, white flour, and refined starches) is similar to that of someone who becomes addicted to cocaine or heroine. The Harvard-based study focused on a distinct region in the brain called the nucleus accumbens that is known as the center for addictive behaviors. The details in the study revealed that this area of the brain is triggered by foods that raise blood sugar just as it would be for other addictive behaviors and activities (such as gambling or drug use).  A diet overrun by high glycemic foods can make us sick. 


Eat to live

Sharon Raccah, Certified Health Coach and owner of PowerMeHealthy, has been in Shanghai for over twelve years and began her own journey in Lifestyle Medicine more than three years ago. She says, “A few years ago I decided that I was done with diets. I researched extensively and slowly started changing my own eating habits. Once it started working, I wanted to share it with others.”  She teaches people to change their eating habits so that they can feel better emotionally, mentally and physically. She says, “I show men and women how to get rid of food addictions, cravings and dieting by eating intuitively for health and energy. Although people do come to me for weight loss, I have also had people ask me to help them with fatigue, skin problems and to help their children change bad eating habits and switch to healthier foods.” 


This approach is as natural as it gets, and focuses on preparing and eating whole foods (fresh fruits, vegetables, grass fed proteins, dairy and whole grains) without complicated-sounding ingredients. “My motto is, stop dieting, and start cooking! Most people today either eat out, order in or even worse, eat prepackaged foods and meals. The fastest, easiest way to start is in your kitchen, make things from scratch, get your friends and family involved and keep it clean and simple.”

Lucy Garcia, a Licensed Dietition at ParkwayHealth couldn’t agree more. Many patients come to her because they are experiencing health issues, and need help managing diabetes, hypertension, uric acid, high cholesterol and triglyceride levels. She considers it her calling to be able to work with people in this  way. “I wanted to be a doctor and also love to cook and eat so I found this career perfect for me. I love helping people improve their health by changing their eating habits.” 


Similar to Raccah, her tips for achieving this goal are straightforward. She recommends “eating at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day, choosing wholegrain carbohydrates where possible, having some dairy or dairy alternatives (choosing lower fat and sugar options), and eating a variety of beans, pulses, eggs and lean animal proteins with an emphasis on two portions of fish each week.”


She advises against crash dieting and encourages the use of healthy fats in small amounts in addition to drinking 6-8 cups of water and excercising 30 minutes daily.


Identity crisis

It’s exciting to think that the ability to change one’s eating habits can have such a positive impact on individual health and well-being. Two-time cancer survivor Pam Ryder has used food to help heal after her diagnosis. While living in Hong Kong in 2001, the UK native was diagnosed with DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma in Situ) in her left breast. She was 35 at the time and had a mastectomy and radiotherapy. She began to study and research the subject of breast cancer and decided to adopt a dairy free diet


“I ate tofu daily, limited red meat and alcohol and ate a lot of fish and vegetables and fruit. I also drank about a pint of carrot juice daily. At the time there were some findings that Chinese and Japanese women who had a traditional diet had lower breast cancer rates. It was interesting to discover that those who moved to the West and maintained a traditional diet still had low rates of the disease, but those who adopted the host nation diet had breast cancer incidences similar to women from the host nation.”


She goes on to explain that she felt the change in diet was instrumental in helping her lose weight, feel healthy and heal after recovering from surgery and radiotherapy. Her advice to anyone looking to heal: “Start exercising as soon as you can following treatment as it helps you get stronger and healthier. Eat the best that you can. I will eat some dairy now, but avoid processed foods where possible and try to cook fresh daily and consume organic when possible.”


While facing a health crisis pushes many people to re-examine their lifestyle and eating habits, it’s not too late to make positive changes right away, even without a disease to contend with. As the evidence would suggest, taking small steps to sustainable changes can reap many benefits, including a healthier weight, physical and mental well-being and less visits to the doctor.


Add these foods to your diet for better health:

Clockwise, from top left: 



Aids in: Reducing Inflammation

Add some to curries, rice or chai tea


Green tea

Aids in: Detoxification

Have a cup (or more) of green tea daily for a dose of antioxidants


Chili Pepper

Aids in: Metabolism

The capsaicin in chilis adds a spicy flavor to dishes and increases energy burning



Aids in: Fungicide, Antibacterial 

Adds a flavor boost to savory dishes, roast it and spread on bread



Aids in: Digestion, Easing nausea

Cut up in stir-fries, Steep in warm water with lemon and honey


Aids in: Restoring pH balance

Squeeze 1/2 lemon in warm water for a balanced start to the day



Aids in: Detoxification

High in polyphenols, apples are convenient antioxidants


Coriander (Cilantro)

Aids in: Reducing inflammation

An aromatic herb, try fresh in salads and salsas



Aids in: Antibacterial 

A tbsp can help soothe a cough and is a natural sweetener


Apple cider vinegar

Aids in: Detoxification, Digestion

1 tbsp of ACV daily has been found to help regulate blood sugar levels