Who hasn't heard or seen the quote, "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food." Supposedly, Hippocrates has been quoted as saying this famous statement, however, the author has been debated. Despite the unknown source, this quote may be the reason behind the fallacious thinking for treating some diseases with diet.
With that said, I will be the first to stand behind living a healthy lifestyle and eating a high-quality diet. Even small changes through a balanced, whole foods diet and exercise can improve health clinically. Additionally, the phytochemicals, fiber, and antioxidants in plant-based foods may help prevent diseases, including cancer. Food can be a powerful tool in prevention and treatment, and, not surprisingly, one of the newer trends in wellness is for doctors to write prescriptions for healthy eating. With so much focus on healthy foods and access to more recipes, grocery lists, and portion/calorie-controlled menus, doctors are beginning to use this as a springboard to health improvement in the population and shifting money toward helping people who suffer from an obesity-related disease to become, well, un-obese by allowing them to buy the healthy foods they need. The money also creates economic stimulus and jobs instead of record profits and dividends for very few people on the treatment side. It's a great idea in theory, but there has to be some level of education that accompanies the program. What to buy and how to prepare the food is vital and would help ensure the success of an initiative of this magnitude.
None of these things are problematic and essential for treating the whole person. Based on some recent discussions I've had, I felt it was important to distinguish between treating illness with food and treating disease with medicine. Yes, they work together, but you can't follow the most stringent, nutrient-packed diet and expect to be cured of aggressive, debilitating, or genetic disease. Unfortunately, many are trying while forgoing conventional treatment, and the results can be catastrophic.
First, what is food? As I said previously, food is powerful and may have serious, impactful results when one follows a poor diet over time. Obesity, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even cancer can result. Food is also meant to be enjoyed. Food is part of our culture, social, and family relationships, and the vitamins, minerals, fiber, fat, and macronutrients that are included are essential for life.
There are certain diseases where it is necessary to modify the diet and may have life-changing results. These cases are supported by significant scientific evidence. People with diabetes know how certain carbohydrates affect their blood sugar levels, and they also need to coordinate their food intake with insulin or medication administration. Science also supports feeding children a ketogenic diet when they have epilepsy. A heart-healthy diet may make a significant difference in the progression of cardiovascular disease, but it is by no means a cure. The same goes for cancer. Diet may make a difference but should not be used as a cure-all, especially if the cancer is aggressive. Phenylketonuria (PKU) happens when babies are born unable to metabolize phenylalanine (an amino acid). It must be removed entirely from their diets to avoid potentially serious complications.
Several autoimmune conditions are directly linked to the consumption of certain foods, as in the case of celiac disease, where any gluten in the diet will cause damage to the intestines and likely death. Celiac disease affects approximately 3% of the population. The recent gluten-free craze has been blown out of proportion and isn't necessary for those without intolerance to gluten as in the case of celiac or some cases of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Avoiding gluten in foods without justification can do more harm than good due to the lack of nutrients in many processed, gluten-free foods.
Food also plays a role in digestive conditions. People with IBS, Crohn's disease, and ulcerative colitis may need to be more careful about their diets because certain foods might trigger their symptoms.
But for many diseases, there's not enough evidence to say that food is a part of treatment.
The dilemma comes when we take the power of food and disregard the power of medicine by replacing it. Many health proponents are propagating these false beliefs that don't have scientific evidence behind them and can have potentially disastrous results when applied clinically.
People may be quick to adopt this philosophy because they want to control their bodies, treat illness, and do it the "natural" way. Diet is, in fact, only one of many factors which affect our health, and physical activity, genetics, and environment all play a vital role.
The well-known Dr. Mark Hyman is heralded as an alternative medicine hero and guru of nutrition. He seems to only agree with evidence-based medicine when it aligns with the false claims he tries to monetize. He has been quoted saying, "Food isn't like medicine; it is medicine."
To use black or white thinking in this context is inaccurate. Let me explain. Food is a means to get or stay healthier throughout life. However, people still get sick and need conventional medicine. There's a place for both means of treatment, and integration of the two is critical. To say traditional or alternative are ineffective by themselves ignores the nuance of the debate.
Chronic disease is rampant in the United States, and poor food choices are simply one of many risk factors for developing one of these conditions. We can't ignore genetics or the environment's role in being diagnosed. Every year 2.8 million people die from all causes in America, and internationally, 56 million people die from all causes.
On the other hand, medicine is a method to treat and prevent disease. You can eat the healthiest diet in the world and still need medication to treat a sickness you may have. A person with diabetes who strictly follows their diet still needs insulin to stay alive. The child who contracted a virus may eat healthy meals at home but still needs medication to treat the sickness. Cancer strikes even those who eat plant-based, high-quality diets regularly, and they still need conventional medicine to help combat it. No doubt, the healthy intake helps to stay active through treatment, but it won't cure the disease.
There are many claims on the internet and a copious amount of research being cited; it doesn't mean that it is a quality, reliable study. To get an accurate picture of whether a theory is valid, you have to look at several pieces of research and their findings. In other words, if one study proves something but several others say the opposite, the one study you thought proved something is an outlier. That's what is commonly referred to as "cherrypicking data."
Studies done on rodents, sample size too small or too large, or the study source was some obscure website or uncredentialed "health influencer" that isn't considered legitimate are all going to lead you down a path of questionable evidence.
The American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association, or American Cancer Society are credible resources to check against false claims.
The idea of "Let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food" has led to a deluge of pseudoscience. Some may forgo life-saving medical treatments in favor of alternative therapies that treat disease with food. In one such case, a person living with cancer was advised to use a juice cleanse to cure her aggressive cancer by an alternative health practitioner. I don't want to assume bad intentions. However, the treatment was misguided. It has happened much too often and have resulted in worsening symptoms and sometimes death.
People get sick. Sometimes it has nothing to do with their diet, and they need natural medicine to become well. Food is just food, and medicine is medicine. Both of them are essential but are not the same.