“Is food medicine? The ques­tion has never been so cur­rent or so con­tentious”

The Guardian - Cook - - Comment - by Bee Wil­son Bee Wil­son is a food jour­nal­ist and au­thor. Her lat­est book is First Bite: How We Learn to Eat; @kitchen­bee

Each morn­ing, af­ter a strict overnight fast, Paula Wolfert drinks a cup-and-ahalf of hot wa­ter with lemon, fol­lowed by a “bul­let­proof cof­fee” made from un­salted but­ter and co­conut oil. At 11am, she makes her “gritty drink” – a sludge of greens, nuts, av­o­cado and ke­fir. Fi­nally, for lunch, she eats some­thing like oven­steamed fish and veg­eta­bles. Wolfert eats no bread and hasn’t had a dessert in years.

Strangely enough, there’s noth­ing so un­usual now about how Wolfert eats. Plenty of twen­tysome­thing well­ness gu­rus fol­low a sim­i­lar regime, all turmeric shots and en­ergy balls. The dif­fer­ence is that Wolfert is 78 and an Amer­i­can cookbook au­thor, once the queen of rich, meaty tagines and cous­cous. As she told the BBC Ra­dio 4 Food Pro­gramme (in an award-win­ning episode, Diet and De­men­tia), Wolfert sac­ri­ficed the food she loved when she was di­ag­nosed with de­men­tia in 2012, be­cause she wanted to do any­thing she could to stop her con­di­tion get­ting worse. As her mem­ory pal­pa­bly de­clined, food seemed like one of the few vari­ables she could con­trol. Wolfert feels that fol­low­ing her strict regime has slowed the on­set of her de­men­tia symp­toms and made her “in­cred­i­bly healthy”.

Is food medicine? The ques­tion has never been so cur­rent or so con­tentious. It’s clearly true that cer­tain pat­terns of eat­ing can sicken us and un­for­tu­nately, th­ese are the pat­terns of eat­ing that most peo­ple in de­vel­oped coun­tries now fol­low: low in veg­eta­bles and high in sugar, salt, re­fined oils and car­bo­hy­drates. Diet-re­lated ill health, in­clud­ing heart dis­ease and type 2 di­a­betes, now causes more deaths world­wide than tobacco. Some, there­fore, con­clude that there must be some spe­cific and mag­i­cal foods – quinoa! Goji berries! – that might of­fer an out­right an­ti­dote to what­ever it is that ails us. Many of the loud­est of th­ese voices are quacks. There are dark cor­ners of the in­ter­net promis­ing that the right diet can cure autism or of­fer some­thing close to eter­nal life, cou­pled with fab­u­lous skin. Some of this woo is ex­posed in the new book The An­gry Chef: Bad Sci­ence and the Truth about Healthy Eat­ing by An­thony Warner. The An­gry Chef points out that many “health­giv­ing” di­ets are any­thing but, lead­ing to dan­ger­ously re­stric­tive regimes that can eas­ily tip over into eat­ing disor­ders, es­pe­cially for vul­ner­a­ble young peo­ple.

But it would be wrong to dis­miss the idea that food and health are con­nected, just be­cause of a few – OK, a lot – of the claims are bo­gus. At this year’s Ox­ford Food Sym­po­sium, Cana­dian hos­pi­tal chef Joshna Ma­haraj talked about the crazi­ness of hos­pi­tals act­ing as if there is no con­nec­tion be­tween a pa­tient’s health and what he or she eats. “Nour­ish­ment has long since been aban­doned,” Ma­haraj said. In 2011, she took over the cater­ing for a Toronto hos­pi­tal and was ap­palled to find that the kitchen used al­most no fresh pro­duce and did not even have a fridge in which to store veg­eta­bles. Sick peo­ple were served meat­loaf so pro­cessed and oily that Ma­haraj “could not find the ad­jec­tives” to de­scribe it. She re­trained the chefs, found lo­cal sup­pli­ers and made the rad­i­cal de­ci­sion to serve whole­some, ap­petis­ing food for ev­ery meal, such as vi­brant dals, sooth­ing con­gee and sweet, roasted beetroot. It was no sur­prise to her that pa­tient morale and health sub­stan­tially im­proved with the new menus.

The av­er­age UK hos­pi­tal still pays lit­tle at­ten­tion to the pow­er­ful link be­tween food and health. I’ve spo­ken to doc­tors who lament the irony of treat­ing car­diac pa­tients, only to see them head­ing to the hos­pi­tal cafe to buy ex­actly the same fried and sug­ared junk foods that landed them on the ward in the first place. The health ser­vice spends a for­tune on nu­tri­tional supplements (more than £300m in 2012), many of which could be avoided with bet­ter meals.

There are signs that many of us are sick of a med­i­cal sys­tem in which drugs are used – and not very ef­fec­tively – to al­le­vi­ate the symp­toms of a bad diet. Wouldn’t it be bet­ter to try a way of eat­ing that re­duced your chances of get­ting ill in the first place? Mar­ket re­searchers have iden­ti­fied a trend for pill fa­tigue among con­sumers. Many would rather eat things such as yo­ghurt, green veg­eta­bles and nuts as a de­li­cious pre­ven­ta­tive “medicine”, rather than be forced to swal­low drugs as a pal­lia­tive.

Food is not a “patentable drug”, as Sheila Dil­lon ob­served on her ra­dio pro­gramme about Paula Wolfert. But as the sec­ond-cen­tury Greek philoso­pher and physi­cian Galen wrote: with­out food it is “im­pos­si­ble to live ei­ther in health or in sick­ness”.

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