In the natural health world, we hear this phrase all the time: Use food as your medicine. But how do you actually go about making food your medicine? Are there special meals to cook when you feel sick? Are there foods that help prevent disease? Many women tell me this concept is overwhelming. But it doesn't have to be.
Plant foods have special molecules called phytonutrients that can turn on and off our DNA to help prevent disease as well as heal acute (short-term) sickness. Eating a diet rich in plant foods over time can prevent disease and enhance health. However, foods containing sugar, preservatives, and trans fats can turn on a cascade of inflammatory processes that ultimately lead to disease.
If you make no other health changes in your life, revising the way you eat can absolutely turn your health around. So how do you make food your medicine? Here's my short guide to using the most powerful drug we have.
Start with your plate.
The first thing is to make sure your plate of food is colorful. Bright colors and deep greens tell us that these foods are packed with nutrients and phytochemicals. The next thing you want to do is make sure half of your plate is vegetables. You should be trying to eat eight to 10 servings of vegetables a day. One quarter of the plate can be a lean protein like organic chicken, beef, trout, shrimp, or salmon. The last quarter can be complex carbohydrates, such as brown rice, sweet potatoes, quinoa, beans, or fruit.
Assess your hair, skin, nails, and energy levels.
We tend to separate our outer bodies from what is happening on the inside, but everything in the body is connected. When your nails and hair are weak, this could be a sign that you aren't getting enough nutrients in your diet. Skin problems can be an indicator of thyroid issues, GI problems, or a diet too high in sugar and preservatives. Your energy levels are also a great indicator of your overall health. Fatigue can be a sign of many different imbalances and is not something to chalk up to getting old. For more information, read my article on fatigue.
Pay attention to your family history.
What diseases tend to run in your family? Where do you see your own health vulnerabilities? Some people have trouble with digestion, others feel more at risk for heart and/or cholesterol problems. Diabetes and thyroid imbalances are also very common. As Dr. Mark Hyman writes in his blog on food and medicine, "We are learning from research in the field of nutrigenomics, that food 'talks' to our DNA switching on or off genes that lead to health or disease." So we can potentially change the expression of our genes by changing how we eat.
Here are some common chronic diseases and foods that can help prevent them:
Nuts are a wonderful option for heart health. Most nuts are packed with unsaturated fats, omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, vitamin E, L-arginine (which is helpful for artery structure), and plant sterols to help cholesterol. Resveratrol and alpha lipoic acid are also great supplements to add if you are concerned with heart health. I would recommend discussing the following tests with your doctor as well: fractionated cholesterol reading, high-sensitivity CRP (hs-CRP), fibrinogen level, homocysteine, hemoglobin A1C, fasting two-hour postprandial insulin and glucose levels.
The Mediterranean diet can do wonders for your health, especially when it comes to brain (and heart) health. Small (low-mercury) fish, nuts, colorful vegetables, and olive oil are all great choices for brain health. Antioxidants found in blueberries, dark leafy greens, red wine, and chocolate are all helpful as well.
The key to Type 2 diabetes prevention is glycemic control. Be sure to eat all carbohydrates with a good amount of fiber, healthy fat, and/or protein to help control the insulin spike that happens after eating a high-sugar/carbohydrate load. Certain minerals and spices can also help level blood sugar, like chromium and cinnamon.
The best foods for thyroid support typically include iodine and selenium. Sea vegetables and seafood are great options for iodine, while Brazil nuts, mushrooms, and halibut are good sources of selenium. I've written a whole article on eating to support your thyroid with charts of thyroid-friendly foods.
For a great resource on staying well for life, read UltraPrevention by doctors Mark Hyman and Mark Liponis.
Food Is Our Most Powerful Drug
Most of us are conditioned to think that taking a pill out of a bottle will make us feel better. We don't generally think that fresh vegetables and fruit count toward healing. But it's true, food is the most powerful drug we have. Pay attention to what you eat, how it feels in your body, and get to know your healing foods. You will find that food offers much more than calories. It offers your ticket to a long and healthy life.
For more by Marcelle Pick, OB-GYN, N.P., click here.
For more on diet and nutrition, click here.
Mayo Clinic Staff. 2011. Nuts and your heart: eating nuts for heart health. Link.
HuffPost Lifestyle is a daily newsletter that will make you happier and healthier — one email at a time. Learn more