Hippocrates supposedly said, "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food." I disagree. Food is not medicine. It's also not medication or a replacement for the profession.
I can hear people saying, "But Dylan, you have type 1 diabetes and a PhD in human nutritional sciences. Surely you of all people know that food has a powerful impact on health?"
I do. But that still doesn't make food medicine.
Hippocrates' maxim is likely a misquotation — one that many people have a vested interest in continuing to promote. All too often, the phrase is used by unscrupulous people to sell nutritional nonsense like the latest detox or cleanse. It is also frequently used by reputable people trying to promote the importance of healthy diets, but they should shelve it so they aren't confused with the quacks.
What's wrong with thinking about food as medicine? It does a disservice to both food and medicine.
Food is so much more than medicine. Food is intrinsically related to human social interactions and community. Food is culture, love, and joy. Medicalizing food robs it of these positive attributes.
A healthy relationship with food is essential to a person's well-being, but not because it has medicinal properties. Food is not just a fuel, it is more than nutrients to take in — and we don't consume it just to reduce our disease risk.
Seeing food as a medicine can contribute to obsessing about macronutrient intake, to unfairly canonizing or demonizing certain foods, and to turning eating into a joyless and stressful process.
People tend to over-value the immediate impact of what they eat today, thinking that a "superfood" can have instant benefits, while undervaluing that a diet is what they consume over their entire lifetime. Switching to a new diet for a week will not reverse a lifetime of poor dietary habits. That switch needs to be maintained to have a meaningful effect.
What we eat in the present has a small, subtle influence on our health, which becomes powerful by affecting us over our lifespan. However, diet is just one of many interacting factors influencing our health. The environment, physical activity and genetics all play important parts too.
Finally, people who are completely healthy still need to eat, therefore food is not medicine.
Medicine is the practice of maintaining health and preventing and treating disease. I use medicine every day to stay alive. I could eat the healthiest foods every day, but without medicine I would still die.
Modern medicine is incredible and I am alive and able to write this article only because of how great it is (special thanks to Frederick Banting and Charles Best, the inventors of insulin). We are living longer than ever before due in great part to public health and modern medicine.
When Hippocrates may have suggested that food is medicine, most people who became sick with a serious ailment died. The ancient Greeks didn't know what bacteria or viruses were and many people believed that diseases were punishments from the gods.
The 'food is medicine' philosophy brings us back to the disease-as-punishment mindset.
Although that concept has largely fallen by the wayside, the "food is medicine" philosophy brings us back to the disease-as-punishment mindset. If you get sick, you must have failed by eating the wrong food. People who are sick do not need that extra baggage.
The "food is medicine" notion can be harmful in another way. People sometimes forgo life-saving medical treatments in favor of "alternative therapies" like juice diets and the like to cure cancer, for example.
Every time I see a story about someone picking a food-based or dietary-supplement-based treatment over modern medicine, I blame "let food be thy medicine."
Pseudoscience and quackery love the "food-is-medicine" philosophy because it helps them sell their nutritional supplements, diet books and therapy sessions. That's reason enough for us to stop misquoting Hippocrates.
Food is food, medicine is medicine, and both of them are really amazing.
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