Food as Medicine, or, Blueberries Prevent Death

I’m not the only one who makes fun of the “food is medicine” “eat this and you’ll live forever or at least you won’t get cancer (maybe).”

Am I?

I’m not the only one who rolls my eyes at “superfoods” or who likes smoothies because they’re a quick breakfast, not because they’re “brain boosters“, right? Right?

…and yet…I routinely add eat garlic, onions, and peppers for their decongestant effect.  Oops.

14 thoughts on “Food as Medicine, or, Blueberries Prevent Death

  1. I also laugh at the ‘food as medicine’ people. There are lots of them out there, it’s a big pillar of Healthism Food-Exercise-and-Weight Fountain of Youth.

    …well, laugh or alternately pity, that is. It’s really tempting to buy into the food-as-medicine pseudoscience, where one thinks one is living longer/healthier because their food is raw, or because it isn’t white, etc.

  2. Here is my take on it… if it is something you’ve tried and you can actually definitively say that yes, this works for me… then by definition it’s not just the usual ascription of magical unproven and unprovable properties to foods that we so often find worthy of mocking.

    I’m a firm believer in food as medicine… as in, you have symptom A and the chemicals found in food B will reduce or eliminate those symptoms for a time.

    What I don’t believe in is these overreaching statements about how if you eat this particular food it will *prevent* you ever getting a given condition. Which you may or may not have gotten anyway. Or that it will provide some other effect that is purely subjective, like increased memory. How can you measure something like that? By definition if you’ve forgotten something you won’t know it to know you don’t know it! lol

    So, claims that X food may help with Y symptom, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt and try it. Claims that X food will *prevent* Y *disease*… not likely.

  3. As a librarian often shelving those books or getting requests for info on the newest/latest/greatest holistic food cures for all that ails I find myself curious but at the same time cautious about how much credit I give to “super” foods.

    On the one hand, holistic cures do, I feel, have merit. Human beings were extracting helpful components from natural ingredients long before we had the sorts of pharmaceutical distribution centers we know now. On the other hand, often I think these benefits and “boosts” are very exaggerated and some likely beneficial-in-some-way foods are unfortunately touted as some sort of cure-alls in a manner that degrades any possible benefit they DO provide because people end up looking to them to solve all that ails them.
    So I’m torn I guess! I do find I smile at outrageous claims that “Eating this Berry will SAVE YOUR LIFE!!” yet still retain respect for the idea that there ARE beneficial nutrients and ingredients inherent in much of the edible parts of the world… I just don’t think there are really any true “Super Foods!”

    But the idea of some lovely, round potatoes and blueberries flying around with little super-capes does have some appeal… ;)

  4. I think a lot of the problem is that we’ve taken Calvinist philosophy too far. (As if it wasn’t so already, I suppose).

    At the beginnings of Protestant thought, wealth was seen as a sign of virtue and God’s favor — especially if one earned that wealth through one’s own efforts, not having been born wealthy.

    That idea has transferred to something more difficult and elusive than wealth or physical comfort was at the time. Most of us have wealth and comfort that people of that time never dreamed of. So we move on to a different aspiration — longevity. If you’re GOOD enough, you’ll live a long, long time. Being “Good” is often tied into controlling the diet. Extra virtue points if it’s difficult, unpleasant or expensive.

    That being said, plant substances DO have proven medicinal effects. It’s just that they’re not a Magic Immortality Pill if you get the combination exactly right. Willow bark really does work for pain — it’s just that aspirin is cheaper and easier to take in a pill.

  5. I have to go with those who find some particular foods helpful in particular situations, but that no food is a magical elixir of eternal life.

    Me? I ate blueberries and potatoes all along because I find them remarkably tasty and satisfying. I will continue to eat them long after the current fad of eating them for purely healthist reasons goes away. Why? Because they taste good and I feel good when I eat them.

    When I have a cold, orange juice and chicken soup and licorice tea may or may not be the most helpful way to get over the symptoms, but they are generally quite nutritious and have a strong comforting effect on me.

    But make me live forever? It is to laugh! And so we do, and rightly so.

  6. This amuses me, given that I found myself in the odd position of arguing that Twinkies were healthy a couple of days ago on livejournal!

    I think there’s a lot to be said for eating foods that are nutritious and healthy, because I think those foods also frequently taste delicious (omg, do I love berries!) but do feel that the beatification of certain foods turns them into magic bullets and talismans against fear rather than, you know, foods that can be beneficial for our bodies. It’s just another way of trying to control something that we simply can’t – our longevity.

  7. I’ve been told since the age of 21, and I am now 60, that I should not eat certain foods and that involves about everything but lettuce and cardboard. I agree that some foods are really good for me, but if I like and want the other foods, well, I’m going to eat them. I am a Christian and I believe that if God calls me home it won’t matter if I’ve eaten healthy foods every day of my life. He’s still going to call me home to Heaven because it’s my time to go. If I am going to die, I am going to die happy, eating what makes me happy. Doctors said I wouldn’t live past 25, so they are sometimes very wrong. HaHa!

  8. Speaking of Twinkies, I remember spending part of Memorial Day weekend watching part of a show on the History Channel called ‘American Eats’. It is several hours long, covering the history of American food culture, food icons, etc. They interviewed a man who loves Twinkies; he eats an average of 3 Twinkies every day of his life, about two boxes of ten per week, & has done so for close to 70 years. Obviously he eats other things too, but the thing is he eats a LOT of Twinkies, & is still alive at 93, so I seriously doubt that, as some folks like to claim, Twinkies in & of themselves drive anyone to an early grave.

    Yes, we need to eat to live & it is probably a good idea to eat a variety of different types of food, but there are NO miracle foods or “Super foods”, as yet another opportunistic jackwad claims every few years to get a book published…”the 10…14…25 Superfoods”, “the 5…6..7 foods you should eat every day”, “the foods you should NEVER eat”, &, among my favorite headlines I see checking my email accounts, “The sandwiches…salads…breakfasts…that will KILL you!” No food, unless it is poisoned or spoiled or you are violently allergic to it, will kill you. Neither will any particular food cause or prevent heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or anything else. I am endlessly amused when eager beavers interview centenarians, hoping to discover the secret of long life..invariably, when they ask about habits, most have never been regular exercisers (&, yes, I am one myself), many have spent years drinking &/or smoking, & they claim as their favorite foods such things as Twinkies, Big Macs, KFC, & things such as bacon & eggs or pancakes & sausages as their daily breakfast. Nobody has the answers, we have far less control then the nannies want us to believe or most of us want to believe over what health problems we may encounter or how long we may live…most of it is dumb luck, aging, sometimes, as with people who spend years working around toxic substances, environment, & genetics. They still beat the drum claiming that fat causes diabetes, when we now know that Type II is even more hereditary than Type I & that 75% of fat people are never diabetic. I take most ‘health’ claims with a grain of salt.

    I will be 61 in 13 days & live a ‘cleaner’ life in many ways than the average person, but no one but me gets to decide what I eat, how much, or when, or threaten me, in the face of my many relatives with lifespans from late 80’s to over 100, with premature death because of my ‘lifestyle choices.’

  9. There cannot be a magic diet, or none of us would be typing this because we wouldn’t have survived natural selection as a species. In terms of health, all we have to do is see what can be constant across all the different climates and conditions on earth. Few, if any, foods grow everywhere on earth. Given that, there can’t be a magic diet, especially when you consider that we’re omnivores.

    There are foods that can actually prevent disease: limes truly DO cure and prevent scurvy, for instance. Malnourishment (which happens at all weights) can be “cured” by foods with the right nutrients: eggs for B12, lemons for C, fortified milk for D and A, carrots for A and so on. Folic acid fortification to those “white foods” has saved countless babies’ lives and prevented neural tube disabilities in even more. As Noel said, modern medicines are almost entirely derived from plants (aspirin), and sometimes animals (insulin) because in a way they are a different kin of “nutritious.” This is not without its own scandal – we knew lithium could treat bipolar disorder and seizures for hundreds of years, but no pharma company would produce it because they couldn’t make money on salt.

    I’m only willing to take herbal medicine so far though, because the dose varies (often widely) by crop and even by plant. Anyone who has died their hair or skin with henna knows this.

    When I dye my blonde hair with henna it might turn out strawberry blonde, or it might turn out so dark as to be almost black. That variation risk is fine with dying my hair, okay if I have a headache and out of the question if I have heart disease or cancer. The pharmaceutical company does the same thing L’Oreal does with hair dye, standardizing the dose to the point that you can rely on a narrow dose range and can look at the box to see the range of effect.

    So yes, food is not medicine per se, and I don’t believe in superfoods that will make you live forever or cure cancer or make you lose and keep off half your body weight. However, eating a variety of foods can prevent malnutrition and the diseases related to it.

  10. I forgot that important point, that different people from different cultures living in different regions have diets totally unique to them, yet they (mostly) thrive. So, yes, it is a good idea to be well-nourished (as in getting enough to eat on a regular basis) & to get a variety of nutrients, yet there is no hard & fast rule about what constitutes a ‘proper’ or ‘balanced’ diet for everyone.

  11. There are times when eating certain things is advantageous – ginger reduces nausea, for example. But the point is that *all* food is good for you, which is why it’s food. It all sustains you, which is why we don’t eat rocks, for example (with the exception of salt).

    The idea that some foods are better than others is the problem bit, because it takes foods out of context. It doesn’t matter how many nutrients there are in what you’re eating if you don’t intake any calories, for example. You need a variety of things, so singling out one thing or another as healthy makes no real sense. It’s all healthy, if you have a varied diet.

  12. Medicine has come from plants since the dawn of time. I don’t believe so much in “superfoods” that will cure or prevent anything, but plant foods definitely have properties that affect the body. I know as someone who suffers almost constant nausea, ginger is one of the best ways to ease that. Garlic is high in Vitamin C and helps keep the immune system boosted, as well as antiseptic properties that help kill infection in the mouth. Strawberries, watermelon and cranberries are all very good diuretics.

    I’m more than happy to use these things to assist in easing discomfort or boosting how I feel.

  13. Pingback: August at Living 400lbs… | Living ~400lbs

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