Eat your medicine, Part 1

More than 2000 years ago, Hippocrates said “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

Clearly, with the limited scientific knowledge of that time, Hippocrates’ edict was based on the observation and understanding that certain foods tended to promote health, while others promoted illness and disease. He would not have know of the existence of specific nutrients within foods and the roles they played in the biochemistry of the human body. Since his time, science has progressed to the point where we know a great deal about specific nutrients and the roles they play. We even know minute details like what atoms and molecules make up a nutrient…and how those particles are arranged.
Of course, we don’t know everything. Just because we’ve identified 10 ways that a certain vitamin, mineral or phytonutrient operates in the human body doesn’t mean there aren’t 15 more ways that we’ve yet to identify. It also doesn’t mean that a nutrient operates in isolation.
A recently published study examining whether high doses of the mineral selenium can prevent cancer found that it, in fact, could not, generating headlines like “Selenium doesn’t prevent cancer.” Frankly, the headline might as well have said, “Selenium: What a loser!” Only selenium’s not a loser. It has been established that being deficient in selenium can increase your risk of cancer. That makes selenium a pretty essential nutrient…but it does not turn a high-dosage selenium capsule into a magic bullet against cancer!
This happens time and time again. It happened with beta carotene, with vitamin E, with the catechins in green tea, etcetera, etcetera. As soon as a nutrient is identified as playing a protective role against cancer, heart disease, diabetes, or what have you, science starts looking at it as if it were a drug. And when it fails to perform as hoped under this “pharmaceutical model,” it’s labeled a failure.
Nutritious food promotes optimal health. So much so that, in some cases, a healthy diet can be as effective as medicine (prediabetes is an excellent example). But that does not mean that every beneficial nutrient can fly solo as a drug. It’s about synergy. It’s about eating a variety of nutritious foods so that we get a wide variety of nutrients (including some not yet identified!) all working together in ways identified and not identified to help our bodies function as well as possible. Losing sight of this is another example of failing to see the forest for the trees.
I’ll have more to say on this tomorrow, in Part 2.