In many cases, food is not a substitute.
How we see the world shapes who we choose to be — and sharing compelling experiences can frame the way we treat each other, for the better. This is a powerful perspective.
“Let food be thy medicine and let medicine be thy food”: This philosophy by Hippocrates is so popular, it shows up on countless Instagram posts, tweets, and introductions to food content.
It’s compelling; the words give people the sense they can heal themselves. There’s a certain optimism to this, a strong sense of individualism. If you’re sick, why not change your diet to get better?
But why are we investing so much into this quote as a lifestyle (it actually might even be a misquote, as we can’t find this in any of his writings) when people fail to see the real issue: Food is not medicine.
The impact of this idea is very tied to “wellness culture” or, in the extreme case, orthorexia, when wanting to eat healthy turns into obsession. The idea of healing what ails you with food is tempting because medicine can be scary sometimes. (Medication isn’t always intended to treat the cause and is rather designed to help manage symptoms, as certain conditions are chronic or have a root that’s out of our control.)
Our culture has a
But medicine can work. Having it hammered into us that we’re in complete control of our health through diet and that we shouldn’t trust medications can jeopardize the benefit of combining therapies to adequately prevent or manage disease and reach our optimal individual health.
Yes, lifestyle can prevent or delay many conditions, but there’s only a small group of conditions we know can be treated exclusively with food or specific nutrients, such as:
- Celiac disease requires exclusion of gluten. Gluten-free diets have become quite popular recently, but less than
1 percentof the U.S. population has this condition.
- Epilepsy that doesn’t respond to medication may improve with a ketogenic diet in children.
- Genetic abnormalities related to metabolism of certain nutrients, such as phenylketonuria, are treated with exclusion or severe restriction of the nutrient, like phenylalanine.
- IgE-mediated food allergies require exclusion of the allergen.
For everything else, food alone might help.
When we hear advice that eating a certain way will help, prevent, or treat a condition and it doesn’t work, we may feel guilt and shame. The blame feels like it lies with us. If we had done better, tried harder, been stricter, maybe it wouldn’t have happened.
This thinking reduces prevention and management of diseases to one singular reason. It ignores everything else, even though there are many factors contributing to health, including ones we’re not able to control. It creates fault when there may be none.
Medicine can help treat disease when it’s needed. If we’re constantly bombarded with the messages that eating clean is best and taking medication is a failure, we face stigma when making the choice that could actually save or improve our lives.
Choosing to take medication for whatever reason is a choice. It’s one that doesn’t need to be justified to anyone.
On a recent Instagram post of mine, someone commented suggesting that my type 1 diabetic husband and his type 1 diabetic friend should revolt against rising insulin prices by treating their disease — an autoimmune disease that’s chronic and incurable — with a certain diet instead of insulin.
In this case, the people involved were able to laugh off the suggestion as misinformed. However, some people may see such a suggestion and feel curious or pressure to try it. This isn’t only against what the evidence tells us will work. It’s extremely risky and harmful to try it, despite good intentions.
While it’s true that food can affect our health, it’s not a cure-all. In reality, it’s so much more than medicine or nutrients. It can be systemic pressures, from class differences
When we turn food into medicine and cultivate an “eat to live” mentality, we remove everything else from food. If we pretend that food is just nutrients or a means to heal disease, we erase histories, celebrations, and memories.
Spending time with friends, loving yourself, and enjoying food you want with people you love is more likely to lead to a long life than any fad diet or wellness trend.
Creating a culture around a potential misquote just serves to shame us all and can lead people to avoid medication for a treatable disease. It’s an injustice to everything food has given us — and still has the potential to give us.
Amee Severson is a registered dietitian whose work focuses on body positivity, fat acceptance, and intuitive eating through a social justice lens. As the owner of Prosper Nutrition and Wellness, Amee creates a space for managing disordered eating from a weight-neutral standpoint. Learn more and inquire about services at her website, prospernutritionandwellness.com.