Food as Medicine: My Journey

As best I can remember, I’ve always eaten a relatively healthy diet. Sure, I enjoyed candy as a kid and I’ve probably eaten my fair share of nutrient-deficient white bread. But thankfully I never acquired a real taste for processed food, likely a bequest from my mother.  A bit of an oddball, she preferred “brown” to white bread (even in those days she knew it was more nutritious), stuck with butter when everyone else switched to margarine and qualified as an “early adopter” on numerous health foods (as they were known in those days), like carrot juice and yogurt.

My own journey down the food as medicine path began in earnest around the year 2000 when I was diagnosed with Stage 0 breast cancer (they found it very early, thanks to regular mammograms and a sharp-eyed radiologist). I was effectively treated, sent on my way and advised not to worry. But that experience was a wake-up call.  It made me realize that I couldn’t take my health for granted. And it marked the start of my serious interest, as both consumer and researcher, in the concept of food as medicine.

Over the years, I’ve also come to appreciate the value of feeling physically fit. When I was younger my only exercise involved walking my dogs. It wasn’t until my early thirties that I developed a serious interest in physical fitness. Since then some form of organized exercise program — aerobics, strength training, Pilates — has been a regular part of my life. 

My commitment to regular physical exercise rejuvenated me. Instead of an uphill battle against sluggishness, which characterized my twenties, I started my day feeling energized.  If life took over and I didn’t get to the gym, I quickly slumped. My  understanding of these benefits was based mostly on personal experience because in those days the science was spotty to say the least. By the early 1980’s researchers suspected that exercise had benefits beyond keeping you physically fit and were looking at things like endorphin highs in runners. But science and technology weren’t positioned to explore these phenomena in any depth until the early aughts.

Now an extensive body of research has shown that regular physical activity benefits your entire being. Science is showing that exercise can, in effect, slow down the aging process at the cellular level. I now know, for instance, that exercise improves gene expression and supports the growth of beneficial bacteria in your gut. On the surface this may not sound like much, but positive changes to your epigenome can help to keep chronic illness at bay. And healthy microbiome works to keep your metabolism and even your brain on a steady keel.

Around the turn of the millennium, like most people, I was becoming  increasingly aware of the role that diet plays in health. As a journalist, I became interested in the research behind this emerging science. By  2006 I was ready to publish The Healthy Slow Cooker, the first of my books with a strong nutritional component. When I leaf through it now, I’m pleased to see that the information has stood the test of time, but I’m also surprised at how little we knew about individual differences in how the body metabolizes foods.

 In those days, nutrition was a “one size fits all” approach. Now we know no single diet will work equally well for everyone. For starters, your genome is unique and it plays a role in how your body responds to specific nutrients. This is a new and very exciting area of science.  It means that in the future, we will be able to focus on how you as an individual (rather than a statistic contributing to a population average) process, store and utilize nutrients based on your genetic variations. We are entering a brave new world of personalized nutrition, health and medicine. More and more your unique biomarkers will determine the optimum diet and lifestyle modifications that suit you best.

As for my own diet, over the years it has evolved, based on research and personal experience. I won’t bore you with the details but I gradually shifted my eating habits.  and today I follow what can be loosely described as “ a Mediterranean diet pattern.”  Sure I indulge in the occasional pizza,  French fry or rich dessert, but for the most part I have eliminated processed foods from my diet and consume only nutrient-dense whole foods. I eat a lot of plant-based foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts. I also try to eat fish twice a week. I do eat poultry and meat but only if it is pasture-raised.  Ditto for dairy; it should come from grass-fed cows, goats or sheep. And I make a point of consuming healthy fats, like extra virgin olive oil, while avoiding refined oils of any kind.

The Mediterranean diet has been well studied and has been shown to have many health benefits. One of its main strengths is its capacity for keeping inflammation under control, since most chronic conditions are linked with this condition, which becomes increasingly common as we age. I also try to balance my intake of the macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate and fat).  And I make an effort to eat as many different foods as I can to supply my body with the vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and dietary fiber it needs.  

That’s the fundamental strategy for tapping into the healing power of food. I don’t believe in “so-called “superfoods” or that there is a magic bullet or a specific combination of foods that will produce long-term good health. It’s a sensible eating approach, consuming a wide variety of whole foods every day. We now know that all the nutrients in foods work together to create synergy in the health benefits they produce. And, as fashionable as it may for interior design, a monochromatic color scheme on your plate is a bad idea. At mealtime, you want to see a kaleidoscope of colors. This signals that you will be consuming a host of nutrients, all of which team up to keep you healthy.

 

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