This week Sally looks at the role food can play in treating and preventing illness…
As a doctor it never fails to astonish me how little training we are given as junior doctors in good, sound nutrition, and how little emphasis we place on the role of eating well in preventing and curing disease in Western Medicine. Need proof? Just look at the dismal food we serve to our patients in many hospitals, or the sugar- and fat-filled snacks we offer in our hospital foyers. Look too at the multi-million pound drug industry that is encouraging us as doctors to treat type-2 diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease and other conditions related to poor nutrition with expensive drugs rather than healthier food.
Hippocrates, the father of medicine, was so right when he said, over 2,000 years ago: ‘let food be thy medicine’.
And yet, fast-forward to the 21st century and a recent study of Americans showing that many of them are undernourished. Yes, you read that correctly – despite the USA’s high levels of obesity, much of its population is undernourished! For example, only 11 percent of people meet the daily recommended intake of fibre and only 5 percent consume recommended amounts of potassium. A large majority also fall short on vitamins A, C , D, calcium and iron – instead eating more saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium than recommended. These stats are so frustrating to me as a doctor – and I suspect the UK is no better.
It may seem shocking that you can be both obese and undernourished, but perhaps it isn’t so astonishing if you look at the nutrients in many of our regular snacks. How many nutrients do you get in biscuits, pieces of cake, crisps, fries, pizza, white rice, pasta and bread? Not a whole lot. So, if we are eating these ‘nutrient deficient’ foods regularly, we must make sure we are getting our nutrients from real, fresh, whole foods, too.
Every day I read of yet another study that demonstrates how the food we eat is contributing to our ill-health, rather than nourishing and fuelling our bodies, and how, if we only ate a more nutritious diet, we could reduce our risk of illness and even treat problems we have already.
I could list hundreds of examples – but here are a few that really highlight the power of good nutrition:
Researchers showed that a heart-healthy eating plan rich in fruits, vegetables and fish significantly reduced the chance of a second heart attack and stroke in people with cardiovascular disease.
Another study from Harvard showed that eating more whole fruits, particularly blueberries, grapes, and apples, was significantly associated with a lower risk of type-2 diabetes.
Various studies have linked a higher intake of omega 3 with improvements in mental health.
A Mediterranean eating pattern supplemented with nuts can reduce your stroke risk according to the American Heart Association’s review of the literature.
Over 25 studies have shown that eating plenty of fibre reduces the risk of bowel cancer.
I don’t want this week’s review to sound like a negative rant – I think this should provide a positive message, believe it or not! Firstly, it gives the power back to the individual, away from the doctor. YOU can treat yourself and the prescription is simple – real, fresh, honest, unprocessed food in sensible portions. How great is that? These studies demonstrate that not only can you improve existing conditions (it’s never too late!), but can also take great measures to prevent future illness – just by what you put in your shopping basket this week!
Thomas Edison, the genius who invented the light-bulb, had another ‘lightbulb’ moment when he said this:
“The doctor of the future will no longer treat the human frame with drugs, but rather will cure and prevent disease with nutrition”.
That was around 100 years ago… it’s about time we took his advice!