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Using Food As Medicine

Updated: Jun 1, 2020

Have you ever heard the term "Food As Medicine?" It is an idea of using food as part of a treatment plan for any diet related chronic disease such as, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, kidney disease, etc, rather than solely relying on medications . As a dietitian using the food as medicine approach, I have seen a lot of success with my patients in terms of their clinical metrics working at Grady Memorial Hospital. Grady started a food as medicine initiative with local partners (Wholesome Wave Georgia and Cooking Matters) to help our food insecure patient population benefit from the nutritional advantages of increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables. Combining Medical Nutrition Therapy with hands on cooking classes and access to locally grown fruits and vegetables has shown to have a significant reduction in blood pressure and A1c in our patients.

Not only are fruits and vegetables a good source of fiber, a nutrient known to manage weight and diet related chronic disease, they also contain a variety of antioxidants and phytochemicals. Antioxidants are substances that counteract the effects of free radicals, preventing damage caused by oxygen. This type of damage could lead to inflammation, neurodegenerative diseases related to aging, cardiovascular disease, etc. Beta carotene (orange-colored pigment found in fruits and vegetables), vitamin C, and vitamin E function as antioxidants in the body (1).

Phytochemicals are chemicals produced by plants that protect themselves against viruses, bacteria, and fungi. In the human body, phytochemicals are believed to protect against some cancers, heart disease and other chronic health conditions. Health benefits are seen by eating a wide variety of plant-based foods including different colored fruits and vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. Below are some phytochemicals and the emerging research of the benefits of each.

Carotenoids in red, orange, yellow, and green plants (cooked tomatoes, carrots, squash, and broccoli) may inhibit cancer growth and cardiovascular disease, and boost immunity.

Flavonoids in berries, apples, citrus, onions, soybeans, and coffee may fight inflammation and tumor growth.

Anthocyanins in berries and red wine are associated with lower blood pressure.

Resveratrol in red wine, grapes, dark chocolate, and peanuts is associated with longevity in some animals.

Proanthocyanidins and flavanols in grapes, apples, cocoa, and red wine are linked to better function of the lining of the arteries and reduced blood pressure.

Sulfides and thiols in onions, garlic, leeks, olives, and scallions may help decrease "bad" LDL cholesterol.

Isothiocyanates in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, and kale may help protect us against cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Quercetin in apples, onions, and citrus fruits may help decrease inflammation and blood pressure.

Terpenes in cherries and citrus fruits may help slow cancer cell growth and fight viruses.

Lutein and zeaxanthin in dark, leafy greens are linked to eye health (2).

Making an Action Plan

It can be overwhelming to sort through all of these phytochemicals and pick out the ones you feel are best for your health. The good thing is that most plant foods contain numerous phytochemicals so you just need to make sure you are getting a variety of different fruits and vegetables. If you've ever heard the term "eat the colors of the rainbow" this is exactly why. See the example below of how you can eat according to the colors of the rainbow. You can follow this template to do the same for yourself!

Red- strawberries, tomatoes, red peppers, cherries, beets, grapes

Orange- carrots, orange sweet peppers, cantaloupe, oranges, sweet potatoes

Yellow- yellow lentils, yellow squash, apricots, lemon, pineapples

Green- cucumbers, asparagus, celery, kiwi, green beans, arugula, spinach

Blue/Indigo/Violet- blackberries, blueberries, eggplant, plums

White- onions, cauliflower, garlic, ginger, bananas, mushrooms

If you are looking for more guidance on incorporating the food as medicine concept into your lifestyle, you can contact me here to schedule an appointment.

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