Updated: Feb 4, 2021
"Real food doesn't have ingredients. Real food is ingredients."
Jamie Oliver, chef and restaurateur
Whole Foods and Herbs Prevent and Treat Disease-The Basics of Using Food as Medicine
Foods, herbs, and plants have been used for medicinal purposes as long as man has been eating.
Are you confused about what to eat and not to eat? You are not alone. This is a very confusing topic. If you look you can probably find evidence to support what you believe. There are endless variations of ‘diets’ and food recommendations/advice. There are wonderful books, articles etc. on this subject and you may find some commonalities but you will certainly find differences as well as pros and cons provided by each.
As a professional health coach and personal trainer, even I get dizzy from the conflicting detail presented on food and eating topics. Who do you trust and believe?
With that said, Hippocrates was the first to purport that medicine is food and food is medicine. The Hippocratic Oath is the vision of conventional medicine. “Do No Harm”. Hippocrates understood that plant-based diets cure and prevent illness. Hippocrates was born in 460 BC so this simple wisdom is very old!
We have largely gotten away from these wise principles.
Today the ‘western diet’ (diets in 1st world countries) in no way resemble that of our ancestors or that eaten in countries where convenience and processed foods are not available.
Our population, including doctors and health professionals, have been wooed by the food industry, which has hijacked our diets in a negative way. Food comes in pretty boxes and packages touting all kinds of benefits - high fiber, low fat, no sugar. Half of the ‘nutrients’ in these foods are chemicals and additives and in no way resemble real food. The goal of the food conglomerates is to make their products taste so good as to be addictive, which brings you back for more. As long as you do go back for more, they will continue to develop variations of these items that fit the current food ‘trend’. For example, when Kale was touted as a superfood, manufacturers found a way to process and package kale so that you think you are eating healthy. They found a way to make kale shelf-stable. Fresh kale should be eaten right away or refrigerated and will last a week or so before starting to turn yellow. So, what are large producers doing to make kale shelf-stable? Picking it fresh, packaging it, and immediately freezing it would be the best option but many times it is dried with fats, salt, sugar and other unwanted additives or preservatives. There are brands that are delicious and pure such as dried apples and dried kale but the cost per ounce is very high. You can make these on your own.
Large food producers operate based on their bottom line, not what is in your best interest for remaining disease-free. Processed food tastes good and is fast and sometimes inexpensive.
How many ads do you see on TV for fruits, veggies, herbs, and spices? Ads center on packaged foods that are fast, inexpensive to make, and have a buzz-word. There is no advertising necessary for fresh produce or heritage, pasture-fed animal products.
I acknowledge that eating a lot of produce is more time-consuming than grabbing a bag of salty or sweet items. Produce and fresh proteins have a finite shelf-life, making it necessary to shop more often and buy less each time. I have found the trade-off so worth while but it takes time to adjust to a healthy way of eating.
I have been eating a plant- based diet for 15 years now. I am not a vegetarian, as I will eat fish and turkey/chicken occasionally. However, most of my diet is plant-based. What I find the most interesting part of my experience is the constant criticism I receive from everyone around me. “Just try a piece of cake. You can eat a small piece”. “I don’t want to go out to lunch with you. There is nowhere to go where you will eat normally.” It goes on and on. It has gotten so bad that I had to find an isolated spot in my office to eat my lunch. What is wrong with this picture? I remind people of what they know they should be eating themselves and they don’t like to be reminded.
Note x 1: You can’t judge foods by reading a claim touting a particular nutrient. For example, most commercial cereals are fortified with vitamins so the natural assumption is that they are healthier. However these vitamins are additives, they do not come from the cereal and the advertising claim can be misleading. The medicinal and health benefits of plant-based foods and herbs is that the chemical reactions that occur in our bodies to process and use that food are complex and hard to quantify. Therefore, manufacturers will promote a good component of their products such as Vitamin C. The studies are insufficient to understand the complex chemistry that makes our bodies love plant foods.
Note x 2: Not all plant-based foods are healthy as described above regarding dried kale. Likewise grains that are processed to flours are used by our bodies as simple carbs, rather than complex carbs which has the unwanted effect of decreasing the nutritional benefit, and allowing the body to digest the food quickly and produce a burst of insulin. This is great if you are a competitive athlete who needs to get carbohydrates into their system quickly, but for most people, it is not the most effective way to eat your carbohydrates. A good example is pasta. A serving is 2 oz uncooked. It would be much better to eat a whole grain such as brown rice, quinoa, kamut or any other (there are so many different whole grains).
Below are some of the benefits gained from eating nutrient-dense plant-based foods.
Food can turn genes on and off (1). (Nutrigenomics) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nutrigenomics) (also called Nutritional Genomics) is devoted to studying how food influences gene expressions and contributes to risk factors for diseases or health and longevity.
The wrong foods, namely refined carbohydrates and high fat foods, cause weight gain (1). Nutrition-less foods decrease the intake of healthy foods because you get full on foods with no nutritional value and are not hungry to eat nutrient-dense foods.
Refined sugar and color/flavor additives are addictive and negatively impact your health and weight.
Supplements should, for the most part, be unnecessary if you are eating a healthy diet and do not have any medical conditions that require intervention. Supplement advertising and information is among the most confusing out there. Can you imagine taking all of the supplements that are touted as being beneficial for one thing or another? You would spend all day planning and taking these supplements. It is far easier to eat healthily, thus minimizing the need for most supplements. Supplements do not replace the vitamins and minerals you get from food.
Produce, healthy grains or starches, and vegetable-based proteins are loaded with vitamins, minerals, good fats, and antioxidants that are necessary for a healthy, disease-resistant life. Variety in what fruits and veggies you eat (vary the colors, eat the rainbow) ensures that you are getting lots of different vitamins, minerals etc. thus minimizing deficiencies in any single one.
Spices and herbs add variety to your meals while contributing additional vitamins, minerals, and herbs to your menu. You can add them anywhere - in salads, soups, stir-frys etc. By adding various spices and herbs you won’t need to know the specificity of each to a particular health-related benefit.
Note x 3: None of these recommendations should be taken in isolation if you have a medical condition that might (or the medications you are on might) have contraindications. Always consult your physician about these concerns.
Note x 4: It takes time to develop new habits. You have to persevere for a few weeks. Starting with one change such as eliminating candy and soda from your diet would be a great start. More about sugar addiction in later posts.
Healthy foods, herbs, and spices can go a long way towards combating diseases of our “western lifestyle” such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and cancer.
Keep the following in mind:
Don't bite off more than you can chew (ha!). Tackle changes slowly so it is not overwhelming. This applies to 2,3,4 and 6 below.
Eat like hunters and gatherers or like birds.
Avoid processed foods, sugar, and refined carbohydrates as much as possible.
Minimize animal protein, selecting plant-based proteins as alternatives. If you eat animal protein, try to select free range, organic meats that are grass-fed and cold water fish such as salmon.
Use the services of a health professional who will support treating any illness or disease you may have with foods and herbs. Everybody is different and this may require some trial and error. It seems much easier to pop a pill but you have no idea what the long-term effects of that will be.
Eat a varied plant-based diet, reducing the need for supplements. Plant-based does not mean vegetarian. It just means that most of the food you consume comes from plants. We don’t need very much protein compared to the amounts most of us consume.
For an excellent treatise on how the food industry and the western diet have impacted our health, see:
In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan, The Penguin Press, 2008.
I recently started watching History 101 on Netflix. The first episode is about the history of the fast food industry. It is interesting and I recommend it. Another excellent documentary is Forks Over Knives.
History of Plants Used for Medicinal Purposes
Plants used as medicine predate written history, over 60,000 years. In Mesopotamia, the written study of herbs dates back over 5,000 years to the Sumerians, who created clay tablets with lists of hundreds of medicinal plants (such as myrrh and opium).https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_herbalism#cite_note-Sumner-2000-p17-7
Ancient Egypt (1500s BC) produced information on over 850 plant medicines, including garlic, juniper, cannabis, castor bean, aloe, and mandrake..https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_herbalism#cite_note-Sumner-2000-p17-7
In India, Ayurveda medicine has used many herbs such as turmeric possibly as early as 4,000 BC.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_herbalism#cite_note-12
Also, Greece (hippocrates) and China have long-held beliefs in medicinal properties of plants, such as tea.