With the advent of medical advances, we are bombarded with tonnes of nutritional information and endless choices, especially when it comes to food. Consumers today are definitely more informed and affluent—and, hence more capable of making smart decisions.

Many voluntarily go on rigid food regimes or detox programmes, despite some of it may be incredibly bizarre. For them, food has ‘gradually’ assumed the place of medicine.

At 78, Paula Wolfert, once the queen of meat, stays away from bread and dessert. Her morning regime consists of a cup and-a-half of hot water with lemon, followed by a “bulletproof coffee” made from unsalted butter and coconut oil. She indulges in a gritty drink—a cocktail of greens, nuts, avocado and kefir—for her mid-morning snack.

This diet started when she was diagnosed with dementia in 2012. And beyond her declining memory, she saw food as one of the few variables she could control. She believes her strict regime has slowed the onset of her dementia symptoms and made her “incredibly healthy”.

Like Paula, many religiously follow all sorts of fad diets and detox cleanses—particularly, when they are endorsed by celebrities, who swear by the famous line of Hippocrates – “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Besides, with health gurus also promoting the ‘au naturel’ hype—it is no wonder stores are packed with an amazing range of health foods, and medicine slides to the sides.

The ultimate question remains: Can food really replace medicine? Does it matter what we put in our mouth? What difference (impact) does it make on how we cleanse (detox) our body systems?

Interestingly, the role of food in nourishing the body and mind has been lost in the storehouse of fads and quackery.

“There are a lot of conflicting impulses out there regarding food,” expressed Dr Christine Pace, an internist at Boston Medical Centre. “We live in a culture that has access to incredibly unhealthy food for very little money.”

Renewed concern on sensible eating – recipes as prescriptions

Medical prescriptions have taken the form of recipes for some doctors, while medical groups have been advising patients against junk food and unhealthy lifestyles. They are now taking a step beyond lists and brochures—creating a kitchen within their clinics. By teaching and guiding patients how to cook, they hope to encourage better nutrition and health. Some medical schools have even introduced culinary curriculums to train more doctors to advise patients on their eating habits.

Dr Nimali Fernando, a paediatrician in Spotsylvania, Virginia, noted the link between patients’ concerns and poor diet—even problems that may not seem connected, like bed-wetting. She started a food blog, and used the church basement for her cooking classes.

In 2014, she opened Yum Paediatrics, a nutrition-based paediatric practice that boasts a 600-square-foot teaching kitchen. Along with it, is the Dr Yum Project, a non-profit preschool nutrition curriculum in several schools in Virginia.

“I needed to do more than just giving patients a pamphlet. I had to have a kitchen in my office,” remarked Dr Fernando. “I try to give a lot of prescriptions that are just recipes to see if we can fix an issue with food.”

At the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio, the Culinary Health Education for Families (CHEF) programme teaches children and parents how to shop, prepare and make nutritious meals. Doctors refer patients to the programme, though satellite programmes are conducted at places like the YMCA for the community.

The Yum Paediatrics set up by Dr Nimali Fernando, a paediatrician in Spotsylvania, Virginia, provides hands-on lessons on nutrition. Photo credit: Julia Rendleman/The New York Times
The Yum Paediatrics set up by Dr Nimali Fernando, a paediatrician in Spotsylvania, Virginia, provides hands-on lessons on nutrition. Photo credit: Julia Rendleman/The New York Times

Dharti Patel’s 10-year-old-son, Rishi, enrolled in the programme. He learned how to cut up vegetables and fruit, and how to make simple chicken and fish dishes, salads with homemade dressing, tostadas and yogurt parfaits for dessert.

Now, he is more aware of nutritional content in products and he also reads nutrition labels whenever they shop at the supermarket. “Whenever he eats, he now looks for how many colours we have added to the plat,” expressed Mrs Patel.

“Most doctors would just hand me some paperwork with advice on what to eat or what not to eat,” added Mrs Patel. “They would tell me to just follow what’s on the chart. But it did not help.”

Dr Warren Ross, whose primary care practice is in Ellicott City, Md., has a teaching kitchen.

“Doctors are on the front line when it comes to helping patients change their eating habits, and they should take advantage of that at all levels of medical care,” echoed Dr Ross. “One would hope that on any medical visit, a doctor would look for an opportunity to see what people are doing around their diet; and whether they want additional support in making dietary changes.”

Food and health are intricately connected, and Canadian hospital chef Joshna Maharaj said, “Nourishment has long since been abandoned.” For patients with diagnoses like diabetes or hypertension, a cooking class is usually billed as an intermediate office visit.

In 2011, when Maharaj took over the catering for a Toronto hospital, she was shocked to find that the kitchen had almost no fresh produce and there was not even a fridge to store vegetables. Patients were served meatloaf so processed and oily that Maharaj “could not find the adjectives” to describe it.

Determined to redefine the connection between food and health, Maharaj retrained the chefs, found local suppliers and made the radical decision to serve wholesome, appetising food for every meal. With the new menus, patient morale and health improved substantially.

Debunking the superfood myths

While it is evident that food does enhance our health in some ways; many health practitioners contend that it should not be used as a ‘substitute’ for medicine. Many are swayed by media claims and would rather eat something less delicious, like yoghurt or nuts, in place of bitter pills.

Food is after all, not a ‘patentable drug’ and there is no such thing as a superfood that takes the place of medicine. It is so much more than medicine and is the emblem of friendships, love, joy, and culture.

Evidently, what we put in our mouths can have small, subtle influences on our health—but good health is more than just observing a strict diet or health regimen. Many factors come into play—the environment, physical activity and genes—all are just as important in keeping us fit and alive. MIMS

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