We need to stop saying that food is medicine. It isn’t.
Hippocrates apparently (but actually, probably didn’t) said it first in the 5th century: let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food. In fact, Hippocratic medicine understood and honoured the difference between food and medicine.
Regardless, like a lot of things said and done long ago, that statement deserves another look. Because for something that probably started as an innocuous thought, it has now morphed into something that’s borderline dangerous.
Driven by the wellness industry and quacks like Mark Hyman and pretty much the entire zero carb/carnivore contingent on Twitter, the concept that you can throw away your medicine if you just change your diet is a something we’re hearing a lot of right now.
‘Farmacy.’ Pffft. Stop it, Hyman, just stop.
In some instances, changing your diet can profoundly impact your need for medication.
In some instances, it won’t.
The whole ‘food is medicine’ popularity parallels our obsession with foods and products that are artisanal, heirloom, clean, wholesome, locally-grown, and natural, as much of that is just bullshit. Using food as medicine is essentially throwing it back to when all people ate was ancient grains and vegetables from their backyards, and didn’t have the medicines we have now.
Wasn’t that time really amazing for health?
Yeah, no. It wasn’t. Modern medicine has increased not only our lifespan, but also our quality of life. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
That’s not to say that food has nothing to do with health, because we all know they’re inextricably linked. But food is food. Medicine is medicine. Let’s not mix those things up.
I respect that ayurveda and natural healers have a place in this world, but as the concept of eating your way out of taking medicine has become more mainstream, I think it’s becoming more of an issue.
Outside of therapeutic diets, there is very little evidence that makes a causal link between specific foods and medical conditions. Like what I wrote in my recent post on whether the anti-inflammatory diet exists, we often overstep the science to extrapolate preliminary results or hypotheses to what we want to be true: that diet is everything, and if we just choose the right foods, we’ll be healthy. That by eating a certain way, we can control terrible things like cancer, and as such, we can cause them by eating the wrong foods.
But that’s a gross oversimplification, because diet is only a part of health. An important part, but not the only one.
Lifestyle, genetics, socioeconomic status, living conditions, race, gender identity, education level – these are all determinants of health that, in addition to diet, have a profound impact on whether or not we are at a greater risk for disease and sadly, whether we come out of an illness alive.
Many of the things in this list are beyond our control, so why in the world would we ignore that fact to convince people that eating a certain way can solve all of their problems?
Outrageous, but I guess it sells books and diets *ahem* Mark Hyman *ahem*
Here are the issues I have with pushing food as medicine:
It shames people who can’t change their diet, who live in food deserts, or are socioeconomically challenged. Because what they can afford might not be consistent with the ‘food is medicine’ ideal. I’m pretty sure Mark Hyman doesn’t consider standard-issue food pantry white pasta and canned tuna as ‘medicine.’
It shames people who need medicine, by implying that if they ate a ‘better’ diet, they might not need their pharmaceuticals anymore. While some people may improve their health by making changes to their diet, telling everyone without exception that diet can override a disease process is misleading.
It turns food into a means to an end, versus an enjoyable experience. It’s like dieting, where you eat certain things because you feel you have to, not because you want to. With food-as-medicine, foods that you enjoy but that aren’t ‘allowed’ might be off-limits to you, which can lead to guilt and shame if you eat them.
It gives the impression that food can give us the control to prevent and cure diseases like cancer. Diet alone can’t prevent or cure very many things, especially cancer. There’s a huge ‘cure your cancer with diet’ contingent out there, and I’ll never stop calling them out, because I find them repugnant. Nobody has ever cured cancer with diet, no matter how many anecdotes these people cite. Suggesting that food can cure an incurable disease leads people to reject conventional treatments that may save their life, and also sets them up to fail.
It insinuates that certain foods are medicinal, when in reality, this hasn’t been proven. The evidence around the medicinal properties of foods and plants is overall very weak. The issues with the studies that exist are that methodology is generally poor, and many of the studies have only been done on animals and cells in lab dishes. Extrapolating any of these to humans with positive, conclusive recommendations about their results is really deceiving.
It fosters distrust in science and in the medical system, implying that ‘big pharma’ just wants to push unnecessary drugs on us and that the doctors who prescribe them are unethical. I’m not saying that the pharma industry isn’t without its conflicts, but to carelessly ascribe a blanket assumption to the entire field, and to doctors, is so damaging. It leads people to reject conventional treatments like chemotherapy and other medications that can directly impact the quality of their lives, or their risk for mortality.
Food is an important part of health, but it can only go so far. Eat a diet that’s as high-quality as you can – meaning, plants, healthy fats, and lots of fiber. But also, live a lifestyle that complements it: don’t smoke, limit alcohol, be active to the best of your ability. Try to sleep as best you can, and reduce stress as much as possible.
FFS, enjoy your life. And stop listening to quack doctors on the internet.