By Atiya Khan
Nutritional Therapist (BSc (Hons), PGCE, Dip. CNM, mBANT, CNHC)
‘Food is medicine’ is a phrase we often hear, based on the words of the Greek physician, Hippocrates (486-377 BC), the father of modern medicine: “Let medicine be thy food and let food be thy medicine”. What does this really mean, and how can we apply this to our daily life? (1)
Food is information for cells
Raw materials for biological processes
Our food gives us the raw materials for the body to function. When a food is eaten, the digestive process, when functioning properly (a whole article in itself!), breaks down the food and extracts nutrients for absorption. Proteins are broken into amino acids, carbohydrates into simple sugars and fats into fatty acids and glycerol. Vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients (plant chemicals which are protective to plants, and in turn to us) are also extracted. Our nutrient requirements can change depending on our genetics, current health, health history, age, sex, environment and where we live. The foods we eat depend on our culture, where we live, access to foods, budget, our perception and habits. (2)
Our food and its absorption then determines how our body works (2). For example, B vitamins, protein, magnesium, iron and Coenzyme Q10 are all involved in a complex process of energy production, and when there is a lack of any of these, we can feel tired (3). Zinc is required for skin health, making proteins, cell growth, wound healing and hormonal health; zinc levels tend to be lower in teenagers, where acne is very common, so zinc rich foods or supplements can be used to help. Each of the nutrients has one or more specific roles in the body (magnesium has over 300! (4), and when there is a deficiency, symptoms may appear (5).
Foods also have medicinal qualities. The traditions of Ayurvedic Medicine from India, Traditional Chinese Medicine, the Ancient Greeks and now nutritional science recognise how different foods, according to their properties, can be used to bring people into optimal health, rather than just being without disease. When a disease or illness does arise (e.g. through stress, injury etc), foods, herbs and other natural therapies can be applied to return the person to health (6). For example, many people use ginger for a sore throat or fennel to help with digestion (see more below) (5).
One size does not fit all! We commonly see how one diet, food or medical drug, exercise or therapy works for one person, but not on another. The ancient traditions understand the importance of our individuality, on a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual level, and target particular foods and therapies for that person. Nutritional therapy adopts this personalised approach, by thorough case taking, asking about family history and getting to know the individual. We are also learning more through the emerging field of nutrigenomics. Our genes can be switched on or off by foods, so we can target particular foods and lifestyle measures for that person to be in good health (7).
A Registered Nutritional Therapist will be able to direct you specifically to which foods are best for you. If you are on medication it is advisable to seek medical advice before embarking on any major changes.
My Top Eight Medicinal Foods (and How to Eat Them)
In general, aim to eat a variety of whole, natural foods – don’t always go for the same veggies and fruits – different varieties count! Different colours of foods give different protective effects; when we eat a range of naturally coloured foods (ie the spectrum of the rainbow – red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple…including white and brown!), we gain these benefits, such as anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and hormone balancing effects (7). If changing your diet, remember to go slowly with any changes.
Here are my Top Eight everyday medicinal foods and why!
Rich in vitamin C, pectin (a soluble fibre which can lower cholesterol and help with bowel movements), and the antioxidant quercetin.
Benefits: Consumption is linked to reduced heart disease, cancer, asthma and type 2 diabetes.
How to eat: Raw (include the skin), smoothies, salads, grated into porridge, soups (eg apple and beetroot), baked and in a healthy crumble (5).
They are local, seasonal, cheap and versatile!
i.e. cabbage, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, radish, swede, kale, cauliflower, collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, kohlrabi and watercress.
Benefits: Sources of vitamin C, carotenes, many vitamins and minerals including calcium and iron (have with lemon juice/vitamin C to increase iron absorption).
All of this family contain phytochemicals, known as glucosinolates, with anticancer properties; there are lower rates of cancer in people who regularly eat these foods. These compounds are high in antioxidants and help with detoxification. Cabbages have also been found to help with peptic ulcers.
How to eat: Steamed with a squeeze of lemon and a little sea salt and pepper, in soups, or mixed with other vegetables for a colourful salad (5).
Excellent source of an omega-3 essential fatty acid, and plant lignans (which are linked to anticancer effects).
Benefits: Reducing risk of heart disease and cancer.
How to eat: Ground (for their oil content) or whole (for insoluble fibre, for bowel movements). Buy them whole, keep them in a dark container in the fridge, and grind them as you need them. Use ground linseeds on porridge, in smoothies, as an egg replacement in baking, or buy the oil and use as a salad dressing (keep in the fridge and only use raw), (5).
Beans and lentils- rich sources of protein, antioxidants and fibre. Red lentils are versatile, cheap and quick to cook.
Benefits: Lower cholesterol levels, improve blood glucose control in diabetics and reduce risk of some cancers.
How to eat: For beans, soak overnight from dried and cook according to instructions (or use a pressure cooker), with ¼ tsp of bicarbonate baking soda or a bay leaf to soften the legumes (to reduce risk of flatulence, sometimes associates with beans!), as well as making them much cheaper. For lentils, cook lentils according to instructions – soaking even for an hour helps to reduce cooking time. If using canned, rinse after opening.
Enjoy them in stews, curries, salads, and make spreads eg houmous, or lentil pate (5).
Very high antioxidant content and specific uses of each spice. My favourites are:
Cinnamon: Can be used to help type 2 diabetes, arthritis, menstrual problems, asthma and digestant. Use in smoothies, over porridge, in baking and curries.
Cloves: Contain the compound eugenol, helping to lower joint inflammation and pain relief. Use in baking, curries or try giving your smoothie a healthy kick!
Turmeric: Anti-inflammatory effects including reducing pain in joints and period pains, and cancer protective effects. Use in curries, soups and make soothing drinks.
Turmeric latte: Warm a mug of coconut milk, pinch of cinnamon, turmeric, ground cloves and a dash of maple syrup.
Spice up your life! (5)
Like spices, they are high in antioxidants and uses specific to each herb. Use fresh where possible – both for health benefits and taste! Eating dried herbs, however, are better than none at all.
Ginger: Good for digestion, passing of wind, feeling sick, contains a strong anti-inflammatory compound gingerol which can help with both rheumatoid and osteoarthritis. Use in tea (steep one-two centimetre piece in hot water), grated in salads, raw in smoothies, cooked in curries and soups.
Coriander: Both a herb and a spice as both the leaves and seeds are used. Helps with digestion (particularly of fats), relieves flatulence, detoxification and used traditionally in India to lower inflammation.
Parsley: Source of vitamin C, folic acid and many minerals including magnesium, calcium, potassium and zinc, helping with liver support (5).
Use coriander and parsley with curries, soups, salads, smoothies, juices and teas (steep a handful in just boiled water for a few minutes).
All of them, especially blueberries. A high source of antioxidants (especially anthocyanidins), vitamin C, other minerals, fibre, including pectin for bowel health.
Benefits: May protect against Alzheimer’s disease, improve vision and may help with both diarrhoea and constipation. Protects against inflammation, cancer and heart disease.
How to use: Add them to muesli, have a handful as a snack with a small handful of nuts, in smoothies, as a healthy pudding with coconut yoghurt and cinnamon, or in baking e.g. crumbles or healthy cakes. You can buy bags of organic frozen berries (5).
High in vitamin C, antioxidants called bioflavonoids and limonene, and minerals including some magnesium.
Benefits: Helps with digestion, supports the liver with detoxification and weight management (contains the soluble fibre pectin, helping you to feel full).
How to use: Start your day with a squeeze of lemon juice with hot water, drink water steeped in lemon during the day, use in salad dressings, on cruciferous vegetables, on avocado with a little salt and pepper as a healthy snack (5, 8).
Enjoy experimenting with the range of foods that nature provides, and use them for taste, variety, and as your personal health kit!
· Keep your plates colourful using this colour wheel: http://healthier.qld.gov.au/colour-recipe-wheel/
· Food is Medicine: https://draxe.com/food-is-medicine/
· Eat your Medicine: http://drhyman.com/blog/2011/10/14/eat-your-medicine-food-as-pharmacology/
1. Langley, S. (2011). The Naturopathy Workbook. 3rd edn. CNM: West Sussex
2. Liska, DeA. Bland, J. S. (2010). Digestion and Excretion in Jones, D. S. Quinn, S. Textbook of Functional Medicine. WA: The Institute for Functional Medicine, pp.190-191
3. Darland, G. (2010). Bioenergetics and Biotransformation in Jones, D. S. Quinn, S. Textbook of Functional Medicine. WA: The Institute for Functional Medicine, pp. 183-188
4. Higdon, J. (2001). Magnesium. Available at: http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/magnesium (Accessed: 3 February 2017)
5. Murrary, M. Pizzorno, J. Pizzorno, L. (2005). The Encyclopaedia of Healing Foods. Piatkus:London
6. Axe, J. (2017). Food is Medicine: The Diet of Medicinal Foods, Science & History. Available at: https://draxe.com/food-is-medicine/ (Accessed: 13 January 2017)
7. Hyman, M. (2016). Eat Your Medicine: Food as Pharmacology. Available at: http://drhyman.com/blog/2011/10/14/eat-your-medicine-food-as-pharmacology/ (Accessed: 13 January 2017)
8. Axe, J. (2017). Benefits of Lemon Water: Detox Your Body and Skin. Available at: https://draxe.com/benefits-of-lemon-water/ (Accessed: 16 February 2017)
Atiya Khan (BSc (Hons), PGCE, Dip. CNM, mBANT, CNHC) is a Naturopathic Nutritional Therapist and Yoga Teacher. Atiya has a degree in Biochemistry, and previously worked as a lawyer and primary school teacher. She now combines her experience and passion in promoting natural health through food and lifestyle, using a holistic approach.
She sees clients individually, runs health retreats, cooking demonstrations, health talks, is an Assistant Clinical Supervisor for the College of Naturopathic Medicine, and a health writer for lifestyle magazines and a Feature Writer for BANT, the professional body for Registered Nutritional Therapists. She is inspired to help people feel at their best.
For a FREE 15 minute chat, contact Atiya: