The Doctor at Dinner
An Essay/Article by Donna M. Monnig
In Western society, we grow up thinking of medicine as a prescription of pills we get from a doctor; we generally only seek medicine after showing signs of illness; and we expect these convenient pills will magically make us healthy. We rarely ever consider that the contents of our dinner plate could have similar, if not safer, medicinal properties. Yet, we have all heard the old adages, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” and “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” These are not meaningless school rhymes or old wives tales. Healthy food is like medicine because it nourishes the body at the cellular level and protects against illness before illness can take root. Hippocrates, known as the father of medicine, once said, “Let food be thy medicine, let medicine be thy food.”
Let us first define what we mean by healthy food. Healthy food is generally considered to be any kind of fresh, raw fruits and vegetables, nuts, berries, herbs, certain meats and fish, etcetera. Most agree that the healthiest of these foods are also grown organically. However, few people, myself included, have probably ever looked up the dictionary definition of food. Why would we need to? Food is all over the shelves at grocery stores, on racks at convenience stores, and easily available already cooked for us at restaurants. When we get hungry, we eat food to satiate our appetite – most people rarely give it much more thought than that. Even people who watch what they eat because they’re on a diet, trying to lose weight, don’t usually think of eating healthy food as medicine so much as they view eating less food as less pounds. However, according to Merriam-Webster, food is a “material taken into an organism and used for growth, repair, and vital processes and as a source of energy … something that nourishes, sustains, or supplies” (296).
Do we not associate the words repair, sustain, nourish, and vital processes with health, and by extension, functions of medicine? While we’re at it, medicine is defined by Webster as, “a substance or preparation used in treating disease 2 : a science and art dealing with the prevention and cure of disease” (459). Food is certainly a substance, apparently one that repairs, sustains, nourishes, and is used for vital processes, many of which are useful tools in the treating and prevention of disease. This is all assuming that one is consuming healthy food, a distinction that Webster’s dictionary doesn’t make.
Based on the above definitions, one could make the argument that any edible substance that does not nourish and repair the body is not actually food, but rather a filler that masks hunger but does nothing positive for the body. Such substances, while disguised as food, could actually cause harm to one’s health, but that is an argument for another day.
According to Mark A. Hyman, M.D., “The notion that food provides anything other than calories for energy and sustaining life is foreign to most Westerners” (10). In Hyman’s article, “Eating Medicine: Food as Pharmacology,” he reinforces Hippocrates’ philosophy of food as medicine, stating, “Modern scientists are rapidly discovering new molecules in food that have medicinal properties and enhance health through improving the function of genes and metabolism” (10). Hyman’s article primarily discusses the healthy dietary habits of China and how they have used food as medicine for thousands of years. “There is no distinction between food and medicine in Asia. People there eat their medicine,” stated Hyman (10).
When I was 17, I studied a Master Herbalist correspondence course from the Global College of Natural Medicine, located in California. While I never officially finished the course, I did learn a lot of valuable information. For instance, broccoli and kale have far more calcium than dairy milk, the human body loses the ability to properly digest dairy milk at the age of three, eating spinach reduces one’s chance of getting macular degeneration, pharmaceutical drugs were originally synthesized from herbs, and much more.
Some of my favorite knowledge acquired from studying herbs and nutrition is how some foods look like the parts of the body that they help heal. If you slice up a carrot the center of it looks like the pupil and irises of the human eye – studies have shown that carrots help prevent and fight eye disease. The average tomato is red and has four chambers inside when sliced, the human heart also has four chambers and is red – many studies have shown that tomatoes are good for the heart, among other things. These are just a couple examples; the list could go on for some length.
Another piece of wisdom imparted by Hippocrates was, “Let them eat flax.” Flaxseed has been shown to have numerous positive health benefits in recent years, from increasing mental health, to aiding in digestion, and many things in between. In his book, Let Them Eat Flax, Dr. Joe Schwarcz poses the question of whether Charlemagne knew what he was doing when he decreed that his people eat flax during the eighth century. Schwarcz answers his own question in the affirmative (15).
“[F]ood, is the original and best medicine,” wrote Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D., in his article, “The Cutting Edge of Medicine” (30). Khalsa, also an author of several books, continued that, while food can act as the “best healing medicine,” eating what he calls “negative” food can cause severe illness over time (31). The old saying, “You are what you eat,” comes to mind.
This is merely another comparison between food and medicine in the form of prescription pills/drugs. Pharmaceutical medicine has saved many lives; however, it has also cost many lives. Some medications are very beneficial while others cause more harm than good. A humorous, if not sad, illustration of this is the quote by Dr. Martin Henry Fischer, “Half of the modern drugs should be thrown out the window, except that the birds might eat them” (Trudeau 246). The comparison is that food and medication both have benefits and side effects. Though, healthy foods have no side effects at all (unless one happens to be allergic to certain foodstuffs), while pharmaceuticals, even beneficial ones, have pages of warnings and possible side effects.
Some could argue that food doesn’t have the concentration that actual medication has and is therefore not as good. They could also argue that while food can be nutritious that doesn’t classify it as medicine. There are multiple sides to every story and argument; however, medicine as we know it hasn’t been around for more than a couple hundred years. Food on the other hand, has been around since the beginning of time. Food was medicinal before humans could define what medicine was. If food was not like medicine, how did the human race survive for so many thousands of years?
In conclusion, there is a time and place for pharmaceutical medication, but the need for that medication can be drastically reduced with the intake of the right nutrient rich foods. There’s no need to get sick before taking medicine, and if one eats their medicine, they may not get sick at all. Take Hyman’s advice, “I encourage my patients to eat their medicine and heal through food” (10). In short, think of a garden as being like God’s pharmacy, and a dinner plate as being like a doctor.
Do you believe that food is like medicine? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.
Hyman, Mark A., “Eating Medicine: Food as Pharmacology.” Alternative Therapies In Health And Medicine 11.6 (2005): 10. Web. 12 Feb. 2013.
Khalsa, Dharma Singh. “The Cutting Edge of Medicine.” Total Health Jul-Aug. 2001: 30-31. Web. 12 Feb. 2013.
Schwarcz, Joe. Let Them Eat Flax. Toronto: ECW Press, 2005. Print.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary.Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster Inc., 1997. Print.
Trudeau, Kevin. More Natural Cures Revealed. Hinsdale: Alliance Publishing Group, 2006. Print.