Food as medicine – can it really work?

During my last years in school, I was set on studying medicine and becoming a physician. But then I became more and more interested in food and its significance for our health and began thinking: Wouldn’t it be better to improve what risks make us sick than treating when the damage has already been done? I decided to change course. I was going to be a food scientist with a focus on food with preventive properties.

Many years later, I worked as a researcher at the Antidiabetic Food Center, a research center of Lund University in southern Sweden, focused on developing and testing different foods’ effects on our health. It was an exciting job where, among other things, we did about a hundred clinical studies on ordinary, healthy people who ate different meals. One of the things we studied was how different foods affect the rise in blood sugar and how this affects the metabolism and various risk factors for obesity and lifestyle-related diseases such as type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The studies were done partly with individual components and foods such as cinnamon, rosehips, fruit drinks, and bread with special fibers, and partly with whole concepts, a kind of “food baskets” with many different healthy foods, such as fatty fish, antioxidant-rich berries and whole grains.

One study stood out with fantastic results: For one month, around 50 healthy people aged over 55 ate a controlled diet composed of foods with known health effects. The purpose was to investigate whether the foods could enhance each other’s effects and lead to so-called synergies. In short, the “food basket” contained foods with a high proportion of whole grains, fat from vegetables and marine environments, foods that were allowed to retain their natural structure, acidic products, and colorful fruits, berries, and vegetables.

We were amazed by the results. After just one month, the subjects had reduced their risk of developing cardiovascular disease by more than 30 percent. The bad cholesterol had decreased by the same number, 30 percent, which is in line with cholesterol-lowering drugs. Also, both blood pressure and several markers of inflammation had been reduced significantly. But perhaps most striking of all: after just one month of this diet, the subjects had also improved on several cognitive criteria such as working memory and concentration ability. When the experiment was repeated later, we came to the same result.

These and many other studies show that eating and drinking healthily can reduce the risk of becoming ill in a compelling way. The answer to the question in the title will thus be a resounding YES! Although, of course, this does not apply to all diseases. But with the very negative development we are now seeing in Sweden and the world, with more and more overweight young people, appalling diabetes statistics, and galloping healthcare costs, it could make a real difference if we could make it easier for people to eat and drink better. I mean: why let it go so far that we have to put healthcare resources on things that we really KNOW how to avoid. The snag is that “just” knowledge is not enough. Anyone who has tried knows how difficult it can be to change their habits. I will write a lot about this in the blog in the future.

Interested to know more about the studies described above? Follow the links: First study. Second study.

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