Can you use food as medicine?

Written by Lucie Villeneuve, nutritionist, M.Sc.

“Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food.” We’re all familiar with this quote attributed to Hippocrates, and we all know the huge impact our food choices have on our health. But can we really use food as medicine? 

Before I get into it, remember that I’m not a doctor, and I’m just giving my informed opinion as a nutritionist!

Food as medicine

The positive impact of general healthy eating on your body

So many diseases are linked to eating a poor diet, such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer…[1,2,3]

Diets rich in processed foods are linked to higher mortality rates and higher disease rates. On the other hand, diets rich in whole foods are linked to an increased lifespan and better disease protection.

Having a healthy diet is the basis for living a full and happy life. Your cells are literally made up of what you eat, so make sure that it’s the right things!

In most cases (unless you’re intolerant/allergic) if you’re eating…

  • All the fruit and vegetables
  • Whole grains such as brown rice, whole wheat pasta, oats…
  • Healthy protein such as legumes and quinoa
  • Healthy fats like nuts and seeds

You are doing the right thing for your health. In general, eating mainly whole foods and limiting processed foods is the goal for healthy eating. 

anti-inflammation diet

How certain foods can increase our disease rate

Diets that are high in processed foods, have lots of refined sugar, are really high in saturated fat, or consist in a lot of junk food can increase your disease risk [4].

Things like a high sodium intake (a lot of sodium is found in processed foods/junk food), a low intake of whole grains, or a low intake of fruit and vegetables are leading dietary risk factors for death and disease burden [5].

Obviously, this doesn’t mean that you can never have these foods, but they should be the exception rather than the norm! 

Food should be used as prevention, not treatment

This really illustrates that food is fundamental in the prevention of diseases and for leading an overall healthy life. 

Many traditional systems of healing, like Ayurvedic or traditional Chinese medicine definitely tap into that, and use food as a powerful healing tool.

While food does have amazing properties, it should not be used as a replacement for medicine. 

I think it’s very important to stress that even though healthy eating can definitely help prevent diseases and can help throughout treatment, it can not and should not replace pharmaceutical drugs. Contrary to certain beliefs, the government is not trying to make you sick by poisoning your food and then selling you the solution in pharmaceutical drugs. 

Yes, the big pharma industry has its fair share of problems, but if you have cancer you need to be getting treatment, not relying on a raw vegan diet. Also, anecdotal evidence is not robust scientific evidence. Just because your friend’s uncle was able to cure his disease thanks to his paleo diet doesn’t mean this can actually be reproduced on a larger scale.

This is very important because it can become dangerous if you choose to rely on food to self-medicate. With that being said, certain foods definitely have medicinal properties, and eating in specific ways can be helpful to supplement the treatment that you’re getting.

So I’m going to share my favorite individual foods with powerful health benefits, as well as different diets for specific health issues.

Foods with medicinal properties

herbs and spices

Herbs and spices are extremely beneficial. They are anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, anti-microbial…You should definitely get used to sprinkling them on all of your meals! You can read more about them in my article on their benefits.

Garlic has tons of benefits as well, like boosting the immune system, for instance. It can help prevent catching colds and the flu as well as reduce the severity of the symptoms [6]. Garlic can also help reduce blood pressure [7] and reduce LDL cholesterol [8]. Garlic is also a good source of antioxidants and has anti-cancer effects [9,10]

Berries are antioxidant and nutrient powerhouses and may help prevent diseases like cancer and premature aging [11,12].

Cruciferous vegetables have amazing properties and can help decrease heart disease, cancer, and promote longevity [13,14].

Probiotic-rich foods (yogurt, kefir, kombucha, kimchi, miso, sourdough…) are crucial for a healthy gut and overall immune function and health. Check out my article on probiotics if you’re interested in learning more.

Foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids (fatty fish, walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds) are also great for cognitive health and to prevent inflammation.

Diets for different health issues as a complementary help

I’m not going to get into all the diets you could go on for different health issues because:

  1. These things are very personal and you should be talking about the diet that’s right for your health condition with your doctor and nutritionist.
  2. In the majority of cases, if you’re eating the foods I talked about in the beginning of the article, that is the best way of eating for optimal health. It’s unnecessary to go on a specific restrictive diet.

However, what I can suggest is trying an anti-inflammatory “diet”, because inflammation is the root of a lot of diseases. This means eating mainly whole foods (veggies, fruit, whole grains, legumes, healthy protein, nuts & seeds, herbs&spices) and limiting processed food with refined sugars and saturated fats.

Eating this way will give you the best chance of being healthy and fighting diseases. You can check out my article on the anti-inflammatory diet if you’re interested in learning more.

vegan food bowl

Food as medicine in short

A lot of diseases are linked to your food choices, and you can definitely use food as medicine as long as you’re not using it as a replacement for more traditional medicine. Make sure to eat plenty of whole foods and limit processed foods!


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