Sunday, October 23, 2011

Is Food Medicine?

I have said that food is medicine for years.  But I wanted to make the distinction between real foods, fake foods and functional foods.  We all know that proper nutrition is necessary for a healthy body. A diet with a variety of foods and a variety of colors will keep our bodies running well.  And we live in a society which all sorts of foods from all over the world can be obtained.  Science has taught us that no matter what, a diet with a lot of fruits and vegetables, lean meats and complex carbs will help our bodies to run optimally. 
Real foods, as I call them, are foods almost in the raw.  Foods which don't take a lot of processing to make it what it is.  But I also consider real foods to be untampered with, foods that come from a source not injected with chemicals, not sprayed with chemicals, not molested with unnatural processes to make it bulky or Frankenstein-ish.  When foods are put through these processes, I call them fake foods. Fake foods come from a variety of sources, including factories, processing plants, and even some farms.  Identifying these foods can be as simple as looking at the ingredient lists and finding more than 4 ingredients in the product, or worse, finding unknown words in the ingredient lists.  Fake meat comes from animals which sit in small pens or cages, are fed by-products from factories or plants, stand in their own feces and urine for any length of time, and are injected with anything to make them healthier or better.  Avoid this group of foods when at all possible.
The third group of food I like to comment on is a group of foods called functional foods.  Originally starting as early as the '80s, functional foods, dubbed "neutraceuticals" by some, includes foods with essential nutrients necessary for the body to function properly. Some of these can be as natural as an organic blueberry, and some as synthetic as a diet aid.   I am really iffy on this third group of foods because most of them have a pharmaceutical element and can be harmful.  I do use synthetically produced functional foods to my advantage sometimes, but I research them extensively first.    
Furthermore, depending on which professional you ask depends on the exact definition and the preference for or against them.  In short, functional foods are only one aspect of the human diet, and diet is only one aspect of a healthy lifestyle.  Functional foods can sometimes be part of an effective strategy to promote good health, but they should never be considered a substitute for other good health habits and they should be cautioned when used in place of medically prescribed therapy for any health problem.

Keeping this in mind, we know that functional foods can, and do, offer health benefits over fake food.  Plus, it is important to know that most real foods and some functional foods are one in the same, and are fantastic foods to include into the diet; foods such as yogurt and organic dairy, organic nuts and seeds, lintels and beans, whole grains, herbs, organic fruits and vegetables, wild game, holistic meats, etc.  It is also important to note that  these foods are the primary foods we need in our diet on a daily basis.

Neutraceuticals, on the other hand, can be quite processed.  These include protein powders, diet pills and shakes, weight-loss/fitness items, enhanced milks, fortified food items, supplements, extracts, and tinctures.  I must make it clear that many processed products are not as healthy as they claim to be, and are not a substitute for real food.  An example would be soda pop with antioxidants, although it has benefits over other soda beverages, it still contains high amounts of HFCS, sodium, and other not-so-healthy substances.  This is not to say that when consuming soda, picking antioxidant enriched pop is a better choice than its counterparts. 

It is important to keep functional foods in perspective when they are consumed, not to assume that they offer the magic bullet against major health problems, but that they can offer vital nutrients otherwise lacking in the diet, or a better option than the comparative products. They provide an opportunity to enhance our nutritional needs, however they do not replace our cornerstone of good nutrition.  

In summery, here are some of my rules when considering what foods to include in your diet, and what not to include:

1.  Listen to your intuition.  If it sounds like a scam or hoax, it probably is.  

2.  Is it backed by science?  Always research the items you consume.  Some questions to ask are:
A) Where does it come from? 
B) Who makes it, what else do they make? 
C) How is it made?  
D) What is in it?  
E) Is everything that is in it safe? 

3. Pick up a book specializing in botanical pharmacology written by a CCH, FNIMH, AHG, ND, or MD.  My favorite author happens to be David Hoffman.  But other authors can also suffice as well.  Also, scholarly medical journals can offer insight into some products and their ingredients marketed.  Use the book(s) as a reference when buying products, or unsure of what foods can be used in order to enhance the diet.  

4.  Learn a little about anatomy and physiology.  Knowing how the body functions is just as important as knowing how the foods we eat help the body to function.  Learn a little about each organ, a little about the hormones the body produces, and a little about the body's functions and actions.  This way we are empowered to make the best choices when bombarded with sales tactics and marketing claims.   

5.  We should remain skeptical about whether these "functional" foods are useful for everyone.  Sometimes, we just don't need certain enhanced foods.  Everyone is different, and just because your friend/colleague/spouse takes something, doesn't mean you need to take it.  Know and trust your own body!  When in doubt, and many of us can be at times, ask a professional if you genuinely need it or if it is just a waste of your money; and in most cases, hyped products are.      



References
Clare M. Hasler, 2002 The American Society for Nutritional Sciences J. Nutr. 132:3772-3781, December 2002 Functional Foods: Benefits, Concerns and Challenges—A Position Paper from the American Council on Science and Health
"Functional Foods." Encyclopedia of Food & Culture. Ed. Solomon H. Katz. Vol. 2. Gale Cengage, 2003
Meister, K. MA. Facts About Functional Foods retrieved on 11/20/11 from http://www.acsh.org/publications/pubID.348/pub_detail.asp
Eat Right, The American Dietetic Assoc. Functional Foods, Volume 109, Issue 4, Pages 735-746 (April 2009)

The New York Times, Business Day. Foods with Benefits, or So They Say. Retrieved on 10/20/11 from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/15/business/15food.html?_r=1&pagewanted=1
European Food Information Council. FOOD TODAY 12/1999 Functional Foods
Torpy, J. (2002) Medical News & Perspectives Integrating Complementary Therapy Into Care. [Electronic version] JAMA. 287(3):306-307.
Ebbing, M; Bonaa, K; Nygard, O; Arnesen, E; Ueland, P; Nordrehaug, J; Rasmussen, K; Njolstad, I; Refsum, H; Nilsen, D; Tverdal, A; Meyer, K; Vollset, S. (2009) Cancer Incidence and Mortality After Treatment With Folic Acid and Vitamin B12 [Electronic version] JAMA. 2009;302(19):2119-2126.
Zhang, S; Cook, N; Albert, C; Gaziano, J; Buring, J;  Manson, J. (2008) Effect of Combined Folic Acid, Vitamin B6, and Vitamin B12 on Cancer Risk in Women: A Randomized Trial. [Electronic version]   JAMA. 2008;300(17):2012-2021.