The nutritionist Wendell Berry once said: “People are fed by a food industry that pays no attention to health and treated by a health industry that pays no attention to food”.
This outrageous hypocrisy that pervades our current medical establishment makes no sense, especially in light of the words of Hippocrates, the purported godfather of modern medicine (yes he’s the guy that all doctors on Earth swear by when they take the Hippocratic oath upon being anointed into the upper echelons of medicine as practicing physicians):
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”.
This wise Greek physician also went on to say the most unusual thing:
“Leave your drugs in the chemist’s pot if you can heal the patient with food.”
Hippocrates was well aware that most diseases were a direct consequence of poor nutrition and that as a result, most illnesses and maladies of the body could be treated by adjusting diet. In fact medicine evolved from shamans and medicine men searching for cures and treatments in the nature that surrounded them; herbs, roots and plants were there drugs of choice back then.
But somewhere along the line in the last 500 years, humans became obsessed with the quick fix. Panacea (another Greek word) referred to a comprehensive, universal ‘wonder drug’ that could cure all the ills of the world. The word literally translated means “cure all” and up until the early 19th century many physicians believed in the existence of this magic bullet.
A Paradigm shift in perception
The problem is that this belief skewered the traditional view that our bodies are capable of healing themselves – provided they are given the right nutrition. So the race was on in the 20th century to package health into an easily administered pill. In the latter half of the century, mass industrialisation and modern marketing methods (also direct marketing to hospitals and physicians themselves) by pharmaceutical companies ensured that the medical establishment focused more on quick-fix solutions that often only masked the symptoms of disease as opposed to healing through a more holistic approach.
The focus shifted from diet and natural healing to artificial interference with systems that were not very well understood. The advancement in biochemical validation methods and clinical trials only served to enforce this view that we could treat disease with artificially produced chemical compounds (that were for the most part isolated from natural sources anyway).
Nutrition and general lifestyle choices were overlooked as obvious reasons for disease.
How can we change this? Or do we really need the medical establishment to (re)embrace this age-old wisdom? Maybe all that is required is a people powered public relations campaign – for the food we eat.
But where to start?
Food Intelligence starts at home
Obviously it all starts at home. By now everyone knows that fast food is not good for us. Neither is leaving out vegetables from our dinner plates or fruits from our breakfast plates. There are so many healthy superfoods on market shelves now, that choices can often be overwhelming. The other fact is that everyone’s body (and mind) is unique and each one of us obviously has different needs when it comes to nutrition. Some minerals and vitamins are difficult to obtain via food – here in New Zealand there is a simple example – our soil is very low on selenium so what we are missing in this trace element, we can make up for by supplementing with selenium.
Knowing the soil deficiencies in the region that you live in will obviously help you make dietary choices which counter this lack of certain minerals. We all have different vocations that require varied amounts of physical and mental efforts.
Feeding the body and the mind at different times based on what is required in the day to day reality will help your body get what it needs – at the right time.
Appropriate nutrient intake validated through genetics
But the good news is that science is catching on. Geneticists are now studying the effects of specific nutrients on our genetics in a discipline called nutrigenomics – and the aim is to establish this on an individualised basis where people can test themselves and find out what nutrients they are lacking and which nutrients their own body responds to best and also the ideal amount of these nutrients, on a genomic level.
Which in itself is pretty spectacular. To envision a future where genetic data dictates/advises us what the best food is in any given circumstance for our body. this can only be a good future right?
5 a day becomes 7 a day
In saying all this, the standard of what is good and the ratio of what foods to eat, is evolving with our knowledge of science. The typical mantra of ‘5 a day’ (regarding fruit and vegetable portions) has recently been amended to 7 a day, after a study of nearly 70 000 men and women found that eating seven plus portions of fruit and vegetables a day reduced the likelihood of them succumbing to either heart disease or cancer significantly.
So either way – whether you can do 5 or 7 really doesn't matter, but what’s important here is the shift in thinking that it promotes. Fruit and vegetables are more important than any other food items when it comes to the amount of nutrients harboured per 100 gramme of food.
The study looked at overall mortality rates and found that eating 7+ portions of veg and fruit a day reduced the chance of dying through heart disease or cancer by a staggering 43%!
Nutrition is Fuel
If you think of your body as a ‘machine’ – then the food you put into your stomach is in effect a type of petrol that runs this machine. Every part of this machine runs on different molecules within the food we eat. Our brain and nervous system rely heavily on various B vitamins and polyunsaturated fats such as EPA and DHA (derived through fish oil), whilst our digestive system and gut require beneficial bacteria to populate in order for them to do their jobs properly. Our muscles require amino acids and proteins in order to grow and regenerate so as to carry our frame around in day to day activities, our frame (skeleton and joints) requires calcium and chondroitin to do the job they are designed for. During periods of stress, these needs change slightly – whereby the nervous system requires magnesium in a greater concentration than usual, or when we are sick, our immune system benefits tremendously from having surplus vitamin C and/or echinacea coursing through our system.
Depending on the type of activity on any given day, you can adjust your diet accordingly. We have to be smart about it and literally listen to our bodies – as they know best.
The Future of Medicine lies in Food!
“If everyone ate well and exercised regularly, then you could imagine a health utopia where supplements are not needed. Continue that train of thought and you could also imagine that pharmaceuticals would probably be in much lower demand. But while the medical community is focused on treating people (let our medicine be thy medicine) and not about working harder to educate the public on the benefits of a good diet and lifestyle then we won’t get there. People do have nutrient gaps, and supplements are there to “supplement” the diet.”
So the age old truths have not really changed in their meaning, what has changed is our focus. We need to bring this focus away from pills and quick fix solutions, back to the stalwarts of health. Namely moving your body and eating right.
Food and exercise, for all!
by Christopher von Roy BSc, MSc, DCP Immunology
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