What is Food as Medicine and why do we need it?
Non-communicable diseases are responsible for 41 million deaths a year (71% of all deaths), high blood sugar alone kills 3.7 million. While traditional pharmaceuticals have helped slow the progression of these conditions, lifestyle diseases require lifestyle solutions. Food as Medicine bridges the gap between a healthy lifestyle and control of lifestyle disease by giving health care professionals the tools they need for true dietary management.
Life is a symphony:
Biochemistry is complicated, really complicated. So far, a little less than 14,000 distinct biochemical reactions have been identified that work in over 2500 separate pathways. These reactions interact with each other constantly to produce what we call life. When we “get sick” an outside agent (bacteria, virus, or fungus) tries to take control of our biochemistry for their own ends. In a lifestyle disease our biochemistry breaks on its own. A good way to think of our biochemistry is an orchestra playing a symphony. There are two ways that the music can go bad. An instrument can break and needs to be repaired – which requires a pharmaceutical. However, the instruments can also be out of tune. This where food as medicine comes in. For our biochemistry to function at peak efficiency, we need all the minerals, vitamins and other micronutrients found in food. Supplements often fail to solve this problem because they are simple and only tune one or two instruments at a time – not enough to get the music right again.
Healthy eating needs a little help:
The importance of a healthy, plant based, diverse diet is well understood. Everyone that has ever tried to improve their health has read some variation of “the best way to get the nutrients you need is to eat lots of vegetables”. Diet management of non-communicable diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease have proven to be effective in clinical trials. Unfortunately translating these trials into real life has proven difficult. Even when people do their best to follow advice, the tools that they need are not easily accessible. Historically food science has revolved around safety and storage not health. Modern food processing results in calorie dense, nutrient poor foods that are easy to transport and store. Even so-called fresh foods cannot be trusted. A study of orange juice showed that the amount of vitamin C decreased to zero after 4 weeks, an analysis of various cocoa/cacao products showed a 5x difference in antioxidant content, and analysis of organic blueberries and green tea found them to contain 6% and 3% of claimed antioxidant content respectively. Food as medicine addresses this problem by ensuring nutrient levels are constant and sufficient to meet the needs of people managing disease.
The gut microbiome is critical to long term health.
The microbial population in the gut (the microbiome) has been shown to be important to all aspects of health from mental acuity and anxiety to cancer survival rates to inflammation. Glucose homeostasis, insulin sensitivity and fat metabolism are all influenced by the gut microbiome. A study of identical twins has shown that body weight is, in part, determined by the gut microbiome, proving that it is not just our genetics that control metabolism. Diet is the only effective way to manage the intestinal microbiome, and Food as Medicine is the most effective way of controlling diet.
Chances are you use food as medicines without knowing it (sort of):
If you take medication to manage blood glucose or hypertension then chances are you are already using pseudo-natural products. Metformin, the most common anti-diabetic drug in the world comes from French Lilac and statins come from mushrooms. In fact, up to 65% of all pharmaceuticals registered today can be considered to be natural. Traditional pharmaceuticals have been developed using a chemical engineering mentality. That is that there is a “golden molecule” - a single component that can be isolated and synthesised. This approach has worked very well for pathogenic disease (antibiotics) and pain relief (aspirin etc.) and has some value for lifestyle diseases. However, it is becoming clear that a Gestalt approach (a complex mix where the whole is worth more than the sum of its parts) is really needed to eliminate lifestyle diseases all together. This is the fundamental principle of Food as Medicine – complexity is the key.
Food as Medicines work with pharmaceuticals not against them:
Medicines do not work in isolation. All medicines make use of biochemical pathways that are part of the body’s natural function. As examples, it has been shown that cancer treatment success can be dependent on the gut microbiome, and B12 deficiency can occur when taking metformin for diabetes management. When taking medication, it is important to remember that the biochemistry of the body needs to be working at optimal efficiency for a medicine to work effectively.
Food as Medicine is the future of health for several reasons:
- Lifestyle diseases overwhelmingly account for deaths in the modern world (71% of all deaths).
- Pharmaceuticals alone have not successfully addressed the problem, and Food as Medicine can address the gap.
- Food as Medicine is a preventative measure not just a “fix” for something that is broken.
- Our current food production needs to change to focus on health not just safety.
- Food as Medicine and traditional pharmaceuticals are two sides of the health problem not antagonistic.
- Food as Medicine is an easy way to meet the needs of the whole world.
- The microbiome is one of the key elements to controlling long term health and Food as Medicine is the key to optimal microbiome health.
Including a high quality, complex, broad spectrum prebiotic that promotes an optimal microbiome health is an excellent first step in improving your overall health and reducing the risk of lifestyle disease.
Dr Malcolm Ball, Chief Scientific Officer