“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”- Hippocrates
You’ve probably heard this quote at some point in your life. It’s an ideology that I’ve come across a lot in the vegan community, but it certainly spans across a wide variety of diets/lifestyles. It’s certainly a consensus that a healthy diet plays a large role in overall health.
First there’s the issue of how much you’re eating. Overeating is the primary cause of obesity which increases your risk for a myriad of diseases, including, but not limited to: heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Undereating can cause heart arrhythmias, low blood sugar, infertility, ulcers, and weakened bones. Then we come to the subject of what you’re eating. You can be maintaining a healthy weight and still be consuming an inadequate diet. Many of us are vitamin deficient. In severe cases, this can lead to serious health complications, varying wildly depending on which specific nutrient is low. Mild cases will typically trigger temporary symptoms, but more severe cases can have long-term effects. For example, if you’re iron deficient for an extended period of time, this can cause an irregular heartbeat and possibly even lead to heart failure. So, in a way, food can play a role as a form of preventative medicine. By being conscientious about what you’re eating and how much you’re eating, you can lower your likelihood of contracting certain conditions and diseases.
But most medicine isn’t preventative. It’s treatment to cure an ailment or mask symptoms. So, can food do this? The first thing that comes to my mind when thinking of this is type 2 diabetes. People have cured themselves by eating right and exercising, right? Well, cure isn’t really the right word. It can go into remission and show no symptoms, but people who have successfully reversed their condition (through whatever means), still need to live as though they’re managing it, in order to prevent relapse. Point being, many (not all) people are able to accomplish this through diet and lifestyle changes instead of standard medications, but hopefully still under the guidance of their physician.
The thing is, sometimes when someone holds the belief that food is medicine, they come to the conclusion that it should take the place of traditional medicine. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this mentality make an appearance more than a few times within the vegan community. When someone is diagnosed with a serious condition, like cancer, it’s a very vulnerable time for them. I know there are people who have had cancer, refused chemotherapy, started juicing, and thankfully became cancer-free. I am in no position to pass judgement on how anyone decides to approach their own treatment. That being said, I do think there’s a difference between making a personal decision and promoting that decision to others. Especially since this is often in conjunction with spreading the belief that medical professionals only care about money and do not have your best interest at heart. (Meanwhile, some of the same people spreading this message are selling green smoothies on their own website that will “cure” your cancer, with no sense of irony whatsoever.) Obviously every case is unique and your chance of survival depends on what kind of cancer it is, what stage it’s in, etc. But the fact remains that there is currently not the science to back up the claim that eating a certain way can cure cancer.
So where does all of this leave us? Is food medicine? Honestly, it’s so much more than medicine. Food plays such a large role in our lives beyond survival. Food is family, culture, holidays, and traditions. The birthday cakes, the secret sourdough recipe that’s passed down through the generations, the cookies left behind for Santa, and the carrots for his reindeer. Food is a part of your life no matter how healthy or unhealthy you are. Can medicine be one of it’s many roles? Sometimes, but even when that’s the case, that doesn’t make it the only medicine. While it never hurts to explore your options, it would be a disservice to eliminate all possible forms of treatment that science and research has brought us.