We’ve all heard food is medicine. Do you believe it?
I mean really believe it, enough to change your lifestyle?
I had two very different conversations at church on Sunday. I don’t see these friends often, so it was good to catch up with them. One was grappling with the early stages of arthritis. A talented musician, she was struggling to play her instruments without pain. I explained to her that my husband and I have experienced significant reduction in our pain levels (especially Jim’s knee pain) since adopting a gluten-free diet. She just smiled, as if that was a nice thought, but was never going to happen in her lifetime. I told her that going without gluten can be a hard lifestyle transition for some people. She quickly replied, “Yes, especially in my family!” She regularly prepares meals for her four young adult male children. It would be a difficult undertaking. I understand that.
After the second church service, my other friend was commenting on how delicious the Christmas treats looked, but how he’d better stay away from them. I was curious and inquired. He said he started a gluten-free diet three months ago and has never felt better. This was exciting news to me! I remember a time when he had requested prayer for his major back problems, and missed days of work because of severe pain. Now his back and joint pain are going away. He is enjoying his job more, since he has increased energy and mental clarity. Since going gluten-free, this middle-aged family man has also reduced his sugar intake and tried new foods, and he believes that is contributing to his improved health as well. I was so happy for him.
What a contrast! I was struck by the divergent nature of these two situations. Both are my friends and I want the best for them. I’m still hoping that my musician friend will discover food can be powerful medicine.
Food as Medicine
Despite what we’ve been told by some doctors in the medical establishment, food can be quite healing. Or put in the reverse, the elimination of certain foods can improve health. Yes, changing your food can change your life for the better. Ten years ago, I was told food had nothing to do with my digestive troubles. Instead, my gastroenterologist said that I had a stomach acid “condition” that could be remedied by taking prescription drugs. I wish now I would have put my faith in food instead of his diagnosis and treatment plan! I eventually did, but it took three more years and lot more pain before I changed my diet and discovered the healing power of food. (Read more about my story and the dangers of proton pump inhibitors.)
Have you ever thought of food as a drug? When you take a pill, it alters your chemistry and the way your body responds to viruses, bacteria, or inflammation. Food does the same thing! When you eat a food, it alters your body’s physiological response, either building a stronger and healthier immune system OR compromising the body’s natural defenses, weakening its core structure.
For example, when I eat organically-grown vegetables without pesticide residue, my body takes those wonderful phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals and turns them into building blocks for each cell, muscle, and bone. The broccoli I consumed three hours ago is strengthening my mitochondria right now.
However, when I eat white refined sugar, my body doesn’t recognize that as a building block. In fact, that sugar actually sets off a cascade of inflammatory responses. (See 146 Reasons Sugar Ruins Your Health.) That inflammation affects the weakest link in my body. For me, it’s my digestion and skin. For you, it may be your joints or bones. For others, that inflammation may cause headaches or allergies or even psychological symptoms, like anxiety or depression. If the inflammation continues for years, it can causes serious and dangerous diseases, like diabetes or cancer. And all because of what you put in your mouth!
(Side note – I realize there are other factors at play here. Exercise, sleep patterns, stress, and inherited genes all play a role in determining your overall health. But for this post, I want to demonstrate how influential dietary choices can be, because what you eat is something you have great control over! And new research is showing that gene expression is controlled largely by environmental factors. That means our lifestyle choices can turn on or turn off genes that we inherited by our parents and grandparents! How empowering is that!?)
Building Up or Tearing Down
Though the synthesis of food in your digestive tract is quite complex, for the purposes of this discussion, you can view food in two camps, as building up (anti-inflammatory) OR tearing down (inflammatory). In this way, food acts like medicine. The technical definition of the word medicine is, “a compound or preparation used for the treatment or prevention of disease, especially a drug or drugs taken by mouth.”
If sourced from quality producers, taken in the right amounts, and in the right preparation, food can be the best healer. Grass-fed beef and real butter have amino acids that build muscle and bones. Organic vegetables and fruits have rich vitamins and minerals that make new brain cells and repair nerve endings. Cultured foods, like yogurt and sauerkraut, have diverse probiotics to enhance digestion and build immune cells.
If obtained from inferior producers, over eaten in large quantities, and prepared in harmful ways, food can be slow poison. CAFO (confined animal feeding operations) poultry and beef contain antibiotics and hormones that can disrupt our delicate hormonal cycles. The Dirty Dozen vegetables contain high levels of pesticides that can damage our livers and kidneys, the detoxifying organs. Sugar-loaded soda pop, juices, and ice cream and high-carbohydrate white bread, bagels, and pasta can cause elevated blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer. Highly processed junk food of any kind contains synthetic chemicals, artificial dyes, MSG, and trans fats. These so-called foods pollute our bodies. In the long term, they can be fatal.
What does your body prefer? Have you asked it lately?
New Year, New Food Choices
If food is truly medicine, then I challenge you to use it to its fullest potential in the new year. It’s the perfect time to examine your lifestyle choices. Shake off the sugar from Christmas dessert and adjust your mindset. Real food is healing. Change your food; change your life. Try these three things.
(I’m not a doctor. I believe in these recommendations, but they are for informational purposes. Please consult with your licensed physician for medical advice.)
1) Eliminate gluten
The best way to know if you have gluten sensitivity is try a gluten-free diet for 30 days. Get rid of all wheat, barley and rye. Watch out for hidden sources in soy sauce, processed meats, and soups. Listen to your body carefully during this time. Watch for struggles like withdrawal headaches or severe cravings for wheat. But also watch for signs of improvement, like increased energy, reduced joint pain, less bloating, and fewer headaches. In one month, try reintroducing wheat and see what happens. At this point, most people know if gluten is a problem. You might be surprised! If you have any suspicion of celiac disease, get tested first! For more information, read my previous posts about gluten.
- An Open Letter to People Who Think I’m on a Fad Diet (Why I Eat Gluten Free)
- Top 3 Gluten-Free Diet Mistakes
- Why is Gluten Sensitivity on the Rise?
- Beginner’s Guide to Going Gluten Free
2) Reduce your refined sugar intake
You already know that sugar causes inflammation. It’s also addictive. Some studies have concluded that white sugar is more addictive than cocaine! For me, it was best to stop sugar cold turkey. But you may want to wean yourself. Replace conventional white sugar with organic sugar, then coconut sugar, then honey and maple syrup. You can also reduce the amount of sugar you place in baking recipes over time. In our house, we only use honey and maple syrup for baking. Avoid agave syrup as it is extremely processed and contains high amounts of fructose. As you reduce sugar in your diet, watch for improvements, such as less brain fog, increased energy, and fewer colds and flu viruses. For more ideas about how to reduce or eliminate refined sugar from your diet, see the following posts.
- 12 Ways to Cut Sugar Out of Your Diet – Paleo Hacks
- How to Detox from Sugar – Dr. Mark Hyman
- 5 Ways to Help Our Kids Eat Less Sugar – Simple Life, Abundant Life
- A Few Healthier Alternatives to Table Sugar – Hug a Tree with Me
- What Surprising Thing Happens When You Eliminate Sugar? – Paleo Diet Basics
3) Buy your food from quality sources
In other words, know your farmer. I encourage you to purchase your food from people you know! We buy grass-fed beef from my mom’s friend, who owns a small ranch about 30 miles from our house. We buy pastured lamb for special occasions from a ranch about 60 miles south of our home.
In the summer months, we buy from local farmers markets and grow a large vegetable garden that saves us hundreds of dollars. We occasionally shop at grocery stores and order bulk items from the family-owned company Azure Standard. We always try to select organic fruits and vegetables on The Dirty Dozen list. Poultry is tough to get locally, since it’s so expensive. But we buy organic chicken in bulk when it’s on sale. Just knowing where your food comes from is a huge boon to health!
Healing with Real Food Takes Time
Keep in mind that these three steps will take you several months to fully complete, maybe even a year or more. Don’t expect it all to happen quickly. Eating real food in our culture is difficult at times, but it’s not impossible. You’ll have to work at finding real food sources. You’ll have to practice saying “no” to junk food. You’ll have to learn what it means to live a “food as medicine” lifestyle.
Also remember that switching to a “food as medicine” program does not equate to fast progress in health. It’s not a quick fix. It often means slow improvements over time. It took me three weeks to feel any progress from a gluten-free diet. But as the inflammation in my body decreased, I felt better and better. If you are currently in a “sickness” state, it’s going to take time to recover. Give real food a chance and give it time to work. So, my encouragement to you is DON’T GIVE UP!
Are you ready for a “food as medicine” mindset? Go for it and don’t look back. You will be glad you did! I welcome your question and comments. If I can help in any way, let me know.
Have a blessed new year!