Cook Your Medicine!

“He who takes medicine and neglects to diet wastes the skills of his doctors.” – from an ancient Chinese proverb

In western medicine, doctors pay but glancing heed to a patient’s diet other than to hand out standard cautions and restrictions. I don’t blame the doctors; nutrition is simply not a part of their education. A research article published in the Journal of Biomedical Education found that over a third of responding medical schools said they required less than 12 hours of nutrition over the course of their 4-year curriculum. Almost a half of that same group required none at all. The average for all responding schools? About 19 hours. Unsurprisingly, in medical practice, nutrition takes a back seat to medication, tests and procedures. But could we be missing out on something important here?

Food has been used as medicine since the dawn of documented time. In traditional Chinese medicine, food is given the same importance for health as herbs and medical treatment. Different temperatures and flavors are thought to influence the body in specific ways; hot and cold are just the beginning. Every taste is considered distinct in its effect, from pungent and sweet to sour and salty.

Our own early American folk and herbal healers regarded food as a staple of treatment. Their methods may seem primitive to us now when compared to advanced treatments and pharmaceuticals, but the effect that food alone could have was remarkable.

It must be recognized that modern medicine has achieved impressive technical progress, especially in the realm of crisis intervention. And it’s true that when a patient reaches a critical stage, strong measures are necessary to avert danger to life. But it must also be noted that patients rarely reach a critical state overnight, nor will they remain in it forever. Well-nourished people have a greater resistance to stress and disease, and miraculous treatments cannot guarantee remission; our own bodies must gain the ability to maintain and strengthen themselves. And that’s work, which requires the right fuel. For humans, that fuel is food.

The aforementioned article in the Journal of Biomedical Education made another claim that intrigued me: “Nutrition is a dominant contributor to most chronic diseases and a key determinant of poor treatment outcomes. It cannot be a realistic expectation for physicians to effectively address obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, hospital malnutrition and many other conditions as long as they are not taught during medical school how to recognize and treat the nutritional root causes.” This was not an opinion piece printed in a fundamentalist alternative health bulletin. This was a conclusion drawn by a group of researchers from institutions that included Harvard Medical School. It is clear that the importance of nutrition in health is known to western medicine. So how has it slipped through the cracks of their educational system? An article published in the AMA Wire revealed a curious statistic: 71% of medical students entering school believe nutrition to be clinically relevant. But by the time they graduate, fewer than 14% felt the topic had been given any importance in their curriculum. The educational system clearly does not support a dietary approach to health.

Fortunately, there are some schools that have already taken steps to change this. The New York University School of Medicine recently gave students a project that sent them into surrounding streets to interview residents and compile a database that researchers will use to further analyze the impact of food environments on childhood disability. And the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago is simulating “teaching kitchens” on campus, so that students can study food in a culinary setting.

What perplexes me is that more respect is not given to naturopathic physicians by the AMA. The universities that naturopaths attend already have comprehensive programs in nutrition that make the courses offered at western medical schools seem like kindergarten classes in comparison. But regardless, and whatever the source, nutrition needs to play a more crucial role in treatments, especially those prescribed for patients with chronic conditions.

The rapidly growing field of integrative medicine is answering the call. Proponents of this approach are taking action to combine the best of conventional western medicine with that of alternative medicine. Cancer Centers of America already uses naturopaths as essential partners in their healing programs. Integrative Medicine is seeking a more comprehensive approach to patient health, and if we are lucky, our health insurance will cover their services.

In the meantime, here’s some traditional wisdom we can all use right now: Sit down to eat, chew food well, turn off the TV and get away from work, relax and enjoy. And laugh whenever you can. We all feel better when we smile.

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