What you eat can be powerful medicine

The standard Western diet – the kind most of us in the United States consume on a daily basis – may be making you sick. Processed foods high in salt and sugar and low in vitamins and nutrients may satiate your hunger for a while, but they’re not helping you stay healthy and live a longer, high-quality life. In fact, your diet may be putting you at risk for diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Making a few changes to what you buy and how you prepare your meals can make your grocery store aisle as effective as a pharmacy. Food can be the best medicine and may help treat and prevent diseases, not just alleviate the symptoms.

“The concept of ‘you are what you eat’ is true when it comes to your health and wellbeing,” said Matthew Cervay, Geisinger’s executive chef. “While you still need medicine to treat diseases, eating a healthy diet can lower your risk for developing those diseases in the first place.”

How food acts like medicine
Most people know what they should do to stay healthy: Eat a healthy diet, get enough exercise, and take vitamins and supplements. However, the problems they experience happen in the details. A healthy diet is usually not found in a box of processed food, even if it claims to be low fat or high in protein. Exercise is important, but if the rest of your life is unhealthy, it won’t save you. And vitamins and supplements are usually a waste of money, since it’s better to get your nutrients from food itself.

“The key to healthy eating and ‘food as medicine’ is to eat as balanced as possible,” said Cervay. “This means choosing whole foods over processed foods, and focusing on beans and legumes while using meat only as a flavor enhancer.”

Inflammation in the body can be caused by infections, abnormal immune reactions and chronic conditions such as obesity. Chronic inflammation is bad for your body and may be linked to a higher risk for cancer and other diseases. This is one place where food can help.

An anti-inflammatory diet, one that is high in substances that reduce inflammation, can reduce your risks and make your body inhospitable to certain diseases. Adding additional servings of fatty fish such as salmon, dark leafy green vegetables, nuts, and spices such as turmeric and garlic can help to reduce inflammation.

Choosing the right foods can also help with diseases such as diabetes. The American Diabetes Association recommends diabetics eat a diet high in vegetables, fruits, lean meats, and whole grains to help control their condition. Replacing high-salt, high-fat choices and eating less red meat and sugar can help control or reverse the disease in some people.

“Nutrition is one of the most powerful tools we have to fight illness and disease,” said Cervay.

How to get started with your “food prescription”
You can start making healthier choices right away by filling your cart with fresh fruits and vegetables during your next shopping trip and by reading labels for the foods you buy. However, it may not always be simple to making sweeping changes on your own if you don’t know how to cook, are unfamiliar with the ingredients, or can’t afford high-quality food choices. This is where your doctor can help.

“Your doctor can help you revamp your diet and identify the resources in your community to help you use food as medicine,” said Cervay. “Starting now, even if you’re in good health, will help you use nutrition to prevent diseases and other health issues.”

Executive chef Matthew Cervay feeds thousands of patients and employees every day at Geisinger. Try some of chef’s healthy “Kitchen Prescription” recipes by visiting Geisinger's wellness articles.

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