The Power of Your Plate: Can You Use Food as Medicine?

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The history of nutrition can be dated back to 400 B.C. Greek physician Hippocrates coined the well-known phrase ‘Let thy food be thy medicine, and thy medicine be thy food’. The proclaimed ‘Father of Medicine’ realised the impact that food has on one’s health, body, and mind, and how it could be used to prevent and maintain illness.

In 1747, it became apparent to British Navy physician Dr. James Lind that sailors were developing scurvy. He noticed they were only consuming nonperishable foods such as bread and meat.

Lind then conducted an on-board experiment. He assigned the sailors to one of three groups of ‘medicine’. They were salt water, vinegar, and limes. Although Vitamin C itself was not discovered until the 1930s, Lind identified that those given the limes did not develop scurvy, pioneering the way for physicians to come and the perception of food and health.

While the ideal is for governments to implement a prevention-based approach to health and nutrition, the reality lies more within symptom treatment. This is evident with conditions such as type 2 diabetes, which, with the correct education, can often be easily prevented. 4.3 million people in the UK are living with diabetes, 90% of whom have type 2 diabetes.

Currently, the NHS spends around 10% of its budget treating patients with diabetes, or complications that have arisen as a result. This cost is unfortunately projected to increase further.

While the immense impact that the cost of food has on nutrition choices cannot be ignored, we also cannot ignore the cost that this has on the NHS, and what the government could be doing to improve nutrition education as a means of prevention for certain health conditions.

The Concept of Food as Medicine

As established, the idea of food as medicine is not a new belief. However, it may date back as an ingrained part of civilisation longer than anticipated. 

The healing power of food has been noted by many ancient civilisations. They integrated dietary practices into their medical systems. Ayurveda, originating in India over 3,000 years ago, emphasises a balanced diet. This diet is tailored to individual body types (doshas) to promote health and prevent disease. Similarly, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) uses food therapy to balance the body’s yin and yang. TCM prescribes specific foods to treat various ailments and maintain harmony within the body.

These holistic approaches underscore the belief that proper nutrition is essential for physical and mental well-being, a principle that continues to influence modern integrative medicine.

Modern scientific research increasingly supports the idea that food can prevent and treat illnesses. Numerous studies highlight the health benefits of a nutrient-dense diet. For example, the Mediterranean diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats. This diet has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers.

Research also demonstrates that specific foods, like turmeric (curcumin) with its anti-inflammatory properties and blueberries with their antioxidants, can help manage and prevent chronic conditions. These findings reinforce the concept that strategic dietary choices are vital for maintaining health and mitigating disease.

The Role of Nutrition in Preventing and Managing Diseases

It’s important to note that not all chronic conditions can be managed or prevented through nutrition. However, there are some that nutrition can be used as a preventative measure for;


Proper nutrition, including diets rich in whole grains, fibre, and lean proteins, can manage blood sugar levels and prevent type 2 diabetes. Legumes, leafy greens, and berries are particularly beneficial.

Heart Disease

Frequent consumption of foods high in saturated fats can contribute to heart disease. Prioritising unsaturated fats, such as salmon, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and avocados (and many more!) can significantly reduce this risk.


High-calorie, high-fat, and high-sugar foods lead to obesity. Balanced diets and physical activity, including high-fiber foods like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, are effective for weight management.

Hypertension (High Blood Pressure)

High sodium and low potassium diets can increase blood pressure. Again, focusing on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and complex carbs can help manage this, and reduce blood pressure.

The Challenges and Barriers

Using nutrition and food as preventative medicine can be a lot easier said than done for some. There is no hiding that living, nay, surviving has become much more challenging in recent years.

With increases in energy bills, mortgages, rent, and so much more, it’s perfectly understandable why what we eat may have changed; we cannot control the prices we buy at, but we can control the products we buy.

And what we buy, can of course impact our health and financial situations. Did you know:

  • Households with medically vulnerable adults have a higher likelihood of being food insecure. Adults considered to have many health problems or disabilities have food insecurity levels five times greater than those without any disabilities or health problems.
  • 20% of BAME households experienced food insecurity in the specified six-month period. This figure was less than half of that for White British households, at 9% in this period.
  • Households with food sector workers have higher rates of food insecurity than non-food sector workers.

Again – it’s all easier said than done.

In a world where global fast food chains offer highly palatable meals for a low cost (accounting for time and energy to plan, shop, prepare, cook, wash and clean), it’s no wonder that highly convenient, and less nutritious food often wins.

While in the UK at least, chains like McDonald’s offer fruit and vegetables as a choice for Happy Meals, the company, at its core, is not designed around prioritising the consumer’s health – and that is unlikely to change.

“People are fed by the food industry, which pays no attention to health, and are treated by the health industry, which pays no attention to food.”

True preventative measures can best be implemented in schools from a young age, to teach life-long habits and skills, and within the the wider adult community, or policies to reduce the cost of ‘healthy’ food. 

People, for the most part, will do the best they can with what they have – whether that’s money, education, or skill.

Can food be used as medicine?

While it’s true that food can be used as medicine to a certain extent, it’s vital to consider ALL factors that might impact an individual’s health. It’s unfortunately not as simple as ‘just eating better’, and it’s ignorant to assume it is. 

If you are looking to use what you eat as a preventative measure for certain conditions, the best place to start is:

  • Increasing the amount of fruit and vegetables that you consume (remember – frozen/canned is just as nutritious as fresh!).
  • Aim for whole grains where possible.
  • Try to reduce your intake of saturated fat (dairy, red meat, packaged sweet treats, baked goods), where possible.

It must be reiterated that nutrition cannot be used to support all health conditions. Be wary of those trying to promote nutritional changes to combat conditions such as cancer. If you would like to try nutritional intervention alongside a medical treatment, we would recommend discussing that with your physician, but we would never recommend replacing treatment with nutritional intervention.

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