Food IS medicine, and why Justin Bieber was right.
Updated: Nov 19, 2020
Back in August of this crazy year, some stuff went down between Justin and a doctor. It all began when he posted on social media about changing your diet and how it can help with anxiety and depression, as it did for him. He posted: “The right healthy food is actually medicine”.
I agree, as Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” This is a core
foundation of the medicine I practice. I was a bit surprised to see such backlash at this statement. Do people not consider food important to health? Perhaps it is not a connection so easily made these days. We have been conditioned over decades to think about calories as something to be counted, fat as something to be avoided, and the perfect meal replacement can be created in a lab and powdered into a smoothie. When I first thought about going to medical school, it was because I was interested in health and nutrition. I quickly decided not to pursue an MD when I learned that most medical schools barely, if at all, teach nutrition. So we are living in a society where what you put in your mouth needs to be nothing more than a bunch of chemicals to keep you alive, it is no wonder people are not concerned with those things being natural or nutrient rich.
What is so wrong with food being medicine?
First, the statement implies simplicity. Perhaps people think this means their condition or disease is simple or somehow less severe because food can help it. This is 100% not the case. Because ONE of the treatments is simple, does not devalue the severity of the condition at all. It is not just mental health conditions that can be helped by eating different foods, it is all health conditions.
Second, it implies responsibility. Are you saying that I’m depressed because I eat the wrong things and it’s all my fault? No. You are living in a society that has not educated people or seen the value of real food and so you may not know that the processed stuff you are putting in your mouth has negative effects. Also, your illness may make it harder for you to make healthy eating choices. However, I am saying, that what you eat will have an impact on how you feel.
When your houseplant turns yellow, what do you do? You think about what nutrients it needs or is getting too many of, and adjust. In the same way, we can look at food as “medicine”. It is the first line of treatment when you are feeling ill. I’m not saying it has to be the only line of treatment.
Our bodies are made of cells, that produce hormones and messengers to communicate with each other. Where do our bodies get the elements to make these things? The air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. So, yes, we literally are what we eat. I don’t know how anybody can argue that point.
Our bodies require nutrients to function. B vitamins help us make energy, vitamin D makes our immune cells function, magnesium helps our muscles relax after they contract, fiber helps our intestines move properly and removes cholesterol from our body, vitamin C is necessary for neurotransmitter formation, essential fatty acids are necessary for brain cell function; I could go on and on.
If we eat a diet of processed chemicals, we are missing out on a lot of these nutrients. If we are stressed, our bodies use some of them up more quickly. If we are on medications, they may be depleting some of them at a faster rate. If we are on antacid medications or have digestive diseases, we cannot absorb our nutrients properly. All of these are reasons to make sure we are putting the highest quality foods into our bodies.
In addition to missing out on essential nutrients, a diet of processed food leads to inflammation in the body. All the preservatives, dyes, pesticides, and chemicals are a huge toxic exposure the body now has to neutralize. In addition, if we lack fiber and plant diversity and have been on lots of antibiotics, our gut microbiome will be unbalanced, leading to more inflammation. This inflammation signals our white blood cells to release chemicals and trigger an immune response, and many of these chemicals affect your emotions (this is the reason you feel so cranky when you have a cold!) In this way, when your diet is akin to a chemical sh!t storm; you are creating a chronic smoldering situation in your body that it has to process constantly, and this has cascading effects through all your systems. There is an absolute connection between eating an inflammatory diet and the worsening of mental symptoms. I haven’t even touched upon carbs and blood sugar regulation, but I’m sure you all know what happens when you eat a doughnut for breakfast and two hours later the "hangry" sets in. A meal that had fiber and fat would have avoided that blood sugar crash and emotional response.
Those of you that know me, know I’m not a drill sergeant when it comes to life. Our bodies are meant to weather the ups and downs. Sometimes you just want ice cream for dinner, I get it. But the goal is to try your best to put real, nutritious, chemical free food into our bodies on a daily basis so that it has what it needs to function at its best now and for years to come. So, Justin Bieber, good for you for improving your health with your diet! As for the doctor who so strongly believes food is not medicine, I think he needs to go back to school and review his nutritional biochemistry.