Though he is known as the Father of Modern Medicine, this teaching of Hippocrates seems to somehow have been forgotten in the most recent era of medical training. Medical schools in the US provide less than 20 hours total of nutrition education on average, and even less during residency training. Add to this the conflicting results we read about in the nutrition research literature and the heavy influence of the food industry, and it's no wonder that your doctor would rather talk about starting a new medication or sending you for a screening test than addressing your diet.
"The greatest medicine of all is to teach people how not to need it." (photo credit: Townhall in Ohio City, Cleveland)
Often the topic of nutrition does not even arise until a patient is well down the path to metabolic disease with excess body fat, high blood pressure, diabetes, or heart disease. Certain diets may be recommended depending on the condition; for example a low-salt or "DASH diet” may be recommended for hypertension, a “carb-controlled diet” for diabetes, and calorie counting or portion control may be suggested for someone trying to lose weight. However, rarely do physicians employ a holistic approach to nutrition or discuss food quality with their patients.
We could spend a lifetime waiting for research to elucidate the perfect diet for every possible medical condition, but what if we are taking the wrong approach? This approach to match a single medical condition with a single treatment that works so well to find “silver bullet” therapies such as antibiotics might not make as much sense when we’re talking about nutrition. Each food we consume (I’m talking about real food here, that originated from the earth) has a multitude of macro and micronutrients that work synergistically to nourish our bodies. Similarly, each of our bodies is unique in the way that we assimilate and metabolize those nutrients. These are complex systems and interactions that cannot always be simplified for the purposes of research or generalized from person to person.
So, instead of waiting until our HbA1c tips from 6.4 to 6.5 to start a “carb-controlled diet,” what if throughout our lives we consumed nutrients to support optimal health? Though it might be easier to reach for a meal that is pre-packaged with chemicals and preservatives but claims to be “healthy,” we will always better serve our bodies by fueling them with real, whole food. We’ve made some amazing scientific discoveries and food science has certainly advanced, but I think it’s important we have the humility as humans to recognize that foods produced by nature through millions of years of evolution will likely always provide superior nourishment to those created in a laboratory.
This approach to nutrition provides the very premise of Functional Medicine, an approach that identifies and addresses the root causes of disease to create health. Nutrition and hydration form one of the roots of the Functional Medicine tree, recognizing that we must properly fuel our bodies to create health. If we spend most of our time in medicine up in the branches, identifying disease (i.e. diabetes) and providing treatments to make the particular marker we use to track progression of the disease look better (i.e. medications to lower blood sugar), we are missing out on the opportunity to truly create health and eliminate the pathophysiology of that disease from its origin.
Each of us has the power to create health within ourselves, and it comes down to the small decisions we make on a daily or weekly basis. Give your body what it needs to thrive, and you’ll be much less likely to find yourself in your doctor’s office down the road facing a new diagnosis or a problem that they might only be equipped to solve with medication.
"Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise, but not body fat.” - from Greg Glassman’s “Fitness in 100 Words"