National Food is Medicine Day is September 14th!

Choosing a wide variety of colors in our diet can boost the body with powerful nutrients.

September 14, 2023
Four student doctors wearing chefs hats stand together eating salads and vegetables on paper plates

By Dr. Traci Stevenson, DO

As Osteopathic Physicians, we recognize a person is a unit of mind, body and spirit and that structure and function are inter-related and reciprocal. I would argue, nowhere is this concept more pertinent to medicine than when we consider food.

After all, eating is something we all must do to survive. The body requires fuel in the form of protein, fat, and carbs as well as minerals, vitamins, and phytonutrients for every single action in our body. Foods we eat can augment energy production, support healing and repair, as well as provide a shield of protection against nearly all chronic disease including diabetes and heart disease. Where do we get this amazing fuel? From food, of course.

Likewise, throughout history eating has been a source of community and connection, the very ingredients that help our mind and spirit thrive. Cultures around the world celebrate special events, holidays and extend greetings to others with food. Food is intricately connected to the entire person in mind, body, and spirit. Research shows that the body and mind connect events together, and over time, build strong pathways in the nervous system. Activities as important as eating, especially in a social setting with happy emotions, will become hardwired into your system. Unfortunately, lack of healthy food or exposure to highly processed junk food and traumatic emotions in our rapid paced society can also get hardwired into our systems. This can leave people feeling tired, sluggish, and often overweight in a society that also tends to be biased against people struggling with weight issues which then adds even more stress. Furthermore, research is showing that stress can contribute to weight gain and make it harder than usual to lose weight. People can get caught in an unhealthy loop of poor diet, poor health and stress that can be exacerbated by the environment we live in. That is the bad news.

However, there is good news too. Osteopathic tenets also recognize that the body has an innate ability to heal. In fact, rationale medical treatment is based on all of these principles. As such, one of the most powerful ways we can support the innate ability to heal is by utilizing the power of Food as Medicine. We can also use food to help disconnect old unhealthy habits while rewiring our systems with new invigorating habits. And the really good news is that we still get to enjoy eating! We’re not focusing on taking things away but rather adding delicious food in. You may begin to notice that it might not be the sugary sweet, processed foods such as cake and cookies that make us feel happy at a gathering but rather it is the sense of community and joy related to cooking and eating with others contributes to our happiness. Trying new foods, especially with friends, will help your brain begin to connect these joyful social interactions with the healthier food. Pretty soon you will actually want to eat the healthy food because it makes you feel happy. Simultaneously, the ‘medicine’ in the healthier food will provide the nutrients the body needs for increased energy and healing, setting the stage for a new loop of health and wellness.

By choosing a wide variety of colors in our diet we can leverage the array of powerful nutrients provided by the food that provide the body with the fuel necessary to literally produce energy, develop strength and flexibility, resist infection and illness and enjoy improved mental health. Diets rich in plants, whole grains and smaller amounts of fish and meat have been shown to reduce risk for nearly all of the most common chronic illness in the US as well as reduce overall death rate and improve feelings of well-being.

Advice from your doctor or nutritionist can help you further target food as medicine for your individual needs but you don’t need an expert consultation or prescription to get started. A few changes such as adding in some fruit or veggies in place of a packaged food, even once in a while is a great place to start. One of my favorite recommendations to use Food as Medicine is to simply try to “Eat a Rainbow!” It’s fun and kid friendly too. Take a look at your diet and notice how many colors of the rainbow in the form of fruits and vegetables you get a day. Do you have any orange, such as carrot? How about green, like nice dark lettuces or even something like green beans? How about the purples? The purples pack a powerful punch providing strong antioxidants and phytonutrients especially good for the brain. If you don’t have any colors in your diet, the first step is trying to add a new color in each day. If you already have some colors, fantastic. The goal is to continue to add in more colors from a variety of foods and move toward eating the entire rainbow every day!

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