The modern day dining table – and what goes on it – has changed a lot in the last 2,500 years. But the phrase ‘food as medicine’, as coined by Hippocrates around 370 BC, has become the catch-cry of an increasing movement of people that believe that food can, and should, be used to treat and cure serious illnesses.
Whether sugar-free, ketogenic, Mediterranean or paleo, health blogs and even some scientists are turning their attention to the role of specific dietary habits in addressing disease. The question is, can food ever be substituted for medical interventions?
There’s now a considerable body of research in this area, particularly with regards to mental health and age-related illness. Research into the impacts of diet on depression and Alzheimer’s disease suggest that there may be some truth to the theory of food being used as medicine.
Deakin University’s Food and Mood Centre recently conducted a randomised controlled trial to measure how changes in diet impacted participants with major depressive disorder. The results found that a third of participants who received dietary support showed an improvement in their condition, far greater than the eight percent who received social support alone. The dietary support focused on eating more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, fish, lean red meats, olive oil and nuts, while simultaneously eating less sweets, refined cereals, fried food, fast-food, processed meat and sugary drinks.
Similarly, research into the ‘Mediterranean diet’ continues to champion the benefits of extra virgin olive oil in treating age-related illnesses, while medical journals report that glutathione – a potent antioxidant found in vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and brussels sprouts – may have a role to play in reducing the impact of Alzheimer’s disease.
But is this evidence strong enough to suggest food alone is the cure?
According to dietician Joel Feren at The Nutrition Guy, diet is an important factor in the overall picture.
“Food certainly has a role to play in disease prevention and maintaining health. When we look at rates of mental illness, its occurrence certainly seems to be lower in those who have well-balanced diets. But we need to keep in mind that there are also other contributing factors, like chemical imbalances in the brain and circumstantial impacts.
“The biggest myth about food as medicine is that it can be the sole treatment. Absolutely in diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, diet is core to achieving better outcomes, but when it comes to most chronic illnesses the primary method of therapy should be medicine, with food as an adjunctive therapy.”
For the average person, moderation, variety and endorsed dietary guidelines are still considered our best line of defence.
“These days, the messaging around sugar-free and low-carb diets means fruits and grains get a bad rap. But people who consume fruits, vegetables and wholegrains as per Australian dietary guidelines have been shown to have better mental health down the track.
“We need to see diet in the context of everything else, rather than as single food groups and single nutrients. It’s not a silver bullet, but the quality of a person’s diet absolutely factors into their long-term health and well-being.”