Food as Medicine
Food is the fuel that powers the human body. That, right there, is the basic biological fact. But at this juncture, a complex web of factors, from cultural traditions to convenience, affects our daily choices. Many of these are far from conscious awareness and have instead become automatic habits, aided and abetted by the food and advertising industries. Yet our bodies— and current scientific research— tell us something else, that it’s time to become much more aware about what and how we are feeding ourselves. Whether you are a gourmet, a gardener, or a fast- food grabber, it’s time to tune in to a growing body of research and thinking about food and healing and collectively turn the page on how we feed our bodies.
The idea that food that is bad for us will make us feel better is a strange idea but one that is thoroughly ingrained in our culture. And we are not only spreading the Western diet to each other but also exporting our unhealthy diet to the world. It is no coincidence that cancer and other chronic diseases are taking hold in the very places where the Western diet is most readily adopted. In fact, cancer rates are on the rise in countries that once had the lowest rates in the world (breast cancer in China and India and colon cancer in Japan). What’s more, the increasing incidence is concentrated in urban centers, where people are most exposed to fast food and highly processed food.
So where to we go from here? With so much dietary advice bombarding us every day it is hard to know where to begin. It is actually much more straightforward than we imagine: eat a primarily plant-centered diet, whole food, low glycemic load, reduced sugar, and balanced diet; a diet that looks like the Mediterranean diet. One of the reasons why this dietary approach in study after study is consistently linked with good health may be in part be attributable to modifications in key cancer hallmarks, including decreases in angiogenesis, improvements in immune function, and decreases in overall inflammatory load. Dark- green leafy vegetables, such as the cruciferous vegetables, whole grains, and other high- fiber foods are great sources of micronutrients and phytochemicals and are linked to lower levels of multiple inflammatory markers. Vegetables and fruits are not only rich in vitamins and minerals but also contain antioxidants, which may play a role in preventing the early stages of cancer. Importantly, cruciferous vegetables in particular have a high level of indole compounds such as sulforaphanes, phytonutrients found to be effective in fighting the growth and development of cancer through reduced cell proliferation, inflammation, and epigenetic biomarkers. The other benefits of a high- vegetable diet are its low- calorie and carbohydrate content and low glycemic index, which are linked with decreased inflammation. In fact, dietary factors influence all the cancer hallmarks, either in a favorable way when eating for health and to decrease tumorigenic processes or eating in an unhealthy way that increases tumorigenic processes.
The Mediterranean diet also reflects a more natural, relaxed interplay between humans and the immediate environment they live in. Historically, Mediterranean cultures eat what is readily available to them, which means they eat what is seasonally grown, what can be caught from the sea, what can be farmed or raised on a small plot (including chickens), or what can be harvested nearby. Of course, this has changed as industrial farming has spread to even remote corners of the globe, but fortunately for all of us, the key principles of the Mediterranean diet (and culture) remain intact.
The same can be said of most healthy diets across the globe— Mediterranean diet, Asian diet, or South African rural diet. There are similarities in all these largely plant- based diets: They include vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and other fiber- rich foods, and minimal servings of animal protein, processed foods, and added sugars. Eating in this manner helps to keep our microbiome well fed. While the names and details might differ, the basics of these diets are largely the same.