Food is the most powerful medicine available to heal chronic disease, which will account for more than 50 million deaths and cost the global economy $47 trillion by 2030. All you need to do is eat your medicine and think of your grocery store as your pharmacy.
Recently, I went to Asia to lecture on prevention, wellness, health, nutrition and the new field of nutrigenomics, the science of how molecules in food interact with our genes to support or interfere with our health. I came away feeling humbled and awed as I realized that the average Chinese person knows more about the medicinal properties of food than I do after years of research. Medicinal foods are part of their everyday diet, and I learned more from matter-of-fact discussions about the healing properties of food I shared with my Chinese hosts than from my hours researching medical journals.
A revelation about food from my recent trip to China
The word for eating in Chinese is comprised of two characters: chi fan, or “eat rice.” The word for taking medicine is chi yao, or “eat medicine.” The ancient culinary traditions of China created meals for pleasure as well as healing.
Beyond simply being a mechanism for conveying calories, food is a source of special ingredients than can prevent and treat disease and transform your health. These are called phytonutrients — special plant chemicals that are not calories, protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, but special molecules that interact with your biology and act like switches on your DNA to heal your body.
While modern scientists are rapidly discovering new molecules — phytonutrients — in food that have medicinal properties and enhance health through improving the function of genes and metabolism, the ancient Chinese have incorporated this knowledge into their cuisine for thousands of years. There is no distinction between food and medicine in Asia.
After 20 years of practice, treating thousands of patients with chronic illnesses, I recognized, yet again, that the most powerful tool in my toolkit is food. Not surgery, not medication. What I saw in China is what I have been teaching my patients for decades: to literally eat their medicine and heal through food.
However, the notion that food is anything other than calories for energy and sustaining life is foreign to most Westerners.
Beyond calories: Food as information
Food contains information that speaks to our genes, not just calories for energy. We are learning from research in the field of nutrigenomics that food “talks” to our DNA, switching on or off genes that lead to health or disease. What you eat programs your body with messages of health or illness.
In Asia, I was speaking to the converted, simply illuminating with science what they have applied every day for thousands of years.
For example, a recent scientific review of the effects of glucomannan (a soluble fiber derived from the Asian potato-like tuber Amorphophallus konjac) on obesity establishes the value of traditional foods as medicine.
Long used to make konnyaku, a jelly prepared in Japan for more than 1,500 years, konjac fiber, or glucomannan, has multiple benefits. Konjac is much more viscous than typical fibers, retaining up to 17 times its weight in water. Expanding in the stomach, small and large intestine, it absorbs fat, accelerates elimination, reduces cholesterol, blunts sugar absorption and increases feelings of satiety.
In short, it helps you lose weight and get healthy.
This is only one among thousands of examples of what modern science is teaching us about the healing properties of food. But in Asia, dinner has long been a date with the doctor.
Dinner with my hosts was full of wonderfully presented, delicious and sometimes mysterious ingredients. Some of the ingredients were unusual, such as the mild, crunchy white tree fungus bai mu er, which enhances detoxification and improves the complexion.
A mixed vegetable dish also included sweet ginkgo nuts, which act as a powerful antioxidant and help increase circulation and improve cognitive function.
The earthy shiitake, or Chinese black mushrooms, boost immunity through special polysaccharide molecules.
The crisp, deep green gai lan, or Chinese broccoli, contains glucosinolates that improve detoxification, prevent cancer, and are rich in minerals such as calcium and magnesium, folic acid and many other vitamins and antioxidants.
The deep red, crispy Peking duck skin is colored with Chinese red rice yeast, known to contain a statin-like substance that lowers cholesterol.
A mellow fish maw and ginseng soup increases energy, helps us adapt to stress and provides easily digested protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Chicken with ginger and bitter melon reduces inflammation, helps with detoxification and balances blood sugar.
Even dessert was healing. A warm, barely sweet longhan soup with lotus seeds and quail eggs was soothing and nourishing. Longhan improves blood pressure and anemia; lotus seeds enhance male sexual function, alleviate diarrhea, are calming and reduce palpitations. Quail eggs are an easily digestible source of protein, folate and choline, and reduce the overall sugar load of this mildly sweetened desert.
A cooling gelatin of aloe and lemon balm washed down the dinner while reducing inflammation.
Aromatic Jasmine tea accompanied the meal, a green tea that improves metabolism, enhances detoxification, reduces inflammation and the risk for cancer, and helps chelate heavy metals in food.
The limited knowledge of Western science about food is overshadowed by the centuries-old Chinese wisdom of medicinal foods to fill the belly, nourish the soul and heal the body. If we recognize that we all chi yao, or eat medicine, then achieving robust health may not be such a bitter pill to swallow. Here’s what to do:
The vast array of colors in vegetables represents the more than 25,000 food chemicals that are beneficial. Each color represents a different family of healing compounds.
Though we have selectively bred the colors we eat into very narrow ranges, in nature, vegetables come in a painter’s palette of colors. For instance, there are red carrots in India, while we eat primarily orange ones. There are 150 varieties of sweet peas, but only a few are available to us here. Thus, we need to make an extra effort to eat many different foods to get the full range of benefits. Plus, there is evidence that interaction between the colors provides additional benefits.
Here are a few tips to put healing medicines in your diet without swallowing a pill:
Red Group (tomatoes, pink grapefruit, watermelon)
These contain the carotenoid lycopene, which helps rid the body of free radicals that damage genes. Lycopene seems to protect against prostate cancer as well as heart and lung disease. Even processed juices contain a lot of the beneficial ingredients: One glass of tomato juice gives you 50 percent of the recommended daily lycopene.
Yellow/Green Group (spinach greens, collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, yellow corn, green peas, avocado, honeydew melon)
These are sources of the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin. These are believed to reduce the risk of cataracts and age-related macular degeneration. Lutein is a yellow-green substance that concentrates in the back of your eye. It may also reduce atherosclerosis, the hardening of the arteries.
Orange Group (carrots, mangos, apricots, cantaloupes, pumpkin, acorn squash, winter squash, sweet potatoes)
These contain alpha carotene, which protects against cancer. They also contain beta-carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A. Beta-carotene protects the skin against free-radical damage, helps repair damaged DNA, and improves night vision. It’s important to note that these beneficial nutrients can be received from other foods, too. For instance, these vitamins can be found in dairy products and meat, but they are not as beneficial because you get high calories and fat along with the vitamins.
Orange/Yellow Group (pineapple, orange juice, oranges, tangerines, peaches, papayas, nectarines)
These contain beta cryptothanxin, which helps cells in the body communicate and may help prevent heart disease. In addition, a single orange contains 170 percent of the recommended daily vitamin C. It’s interesting to note that the skin of an orange is high in a protective fat that has been found to kill cancer cells in humans and animals, which highlights the fact that two-thirds of all drugs come from the plant world.
Red/Purple Group (beets, eggplant, purple grapes, red wine, grape juice, prunes, cranberries, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, red apples)
These are loaded with powerful antioxidants called anthocyanins believed to protect against heart disease by preventing blood clots. They may also delay the aging of cells in the body. There also is some evidence they may help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
Green Group (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, Chinese cabbage or bok choi, kale)
These contain the chemicals sulforaphane and isocyanate, and they also contain indoles, all of which help ward off cancer by inhibiting carcinogens. Although ten percent of the population – including George Bush Sr. – doesn’t like broccoli, it is important to include it in your diet because of the beneficial chemicals it contains.
White/Green Group (leeks, scallions, garlic, onions, celery, pears, white wine, endive, chives)
The onion family contains allicin, which has anti-tumor properties. Other foods in this group contain antioxidant flavonoids such as quercetin and kaempferol.
So, remember to eat the rainbow!
To your good health,
Mark Hyman, MD
This blog post originally appeared on DrHyman.com.