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Hippocrates supposedly said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” I disagree. Food is not medicine.

I can hear people saying, “But, Dylan, you have type 1 diabetes and a Ph.D. in human nutritional sciences. Surely you of all people know that food has a powerful impact on health?”

I do. But that still doesn’t make food medicine.

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Hippocrates’s maxim is likely a misquotation — one that many people have a vested interest in continuing to promote. All too often, the phrase is used by unscrupulous people to sell nutritional nonsense like the latest detox or cleanse. It is also frequently used by reputable people trying to promote the importance of healthy diets, but they should shelve it so they aren’t confused with the quacks.

What’s wrong with thinking about food as medicine? It does a disservice to both food and medicine.

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Food is so much more than medicine. Food is intrinsically related to human social interactions and community. Food is culture, love, and joy. Turning food into medicine robs it of these positive attributes.

A healthy relationship with food is essential to a person’s well-being, but not because it has medicinal properties. Food is not just fuel and it is more than nutrients — and we don’t consume it just to reduce our disease risk.

Seeing food as a medicine can contribute to obsessing about macronutrient intake, to unfairly canonizing or demonizing certain foods, and to turning eating into a joyless and stressful process.

People tend to overvalue the immediate impact of what they eat, thinking that a “super food” can have instant benefits while undervaluing the long-term effects of what they consume over their lifetime.

To be sure, what we eat today can have small, subtle influences on health, but they become powerful when repeated over the lifespan. Yet diet is just one of many factors that interact to influence health. The environment, physical activity, and genes all play important roles, too.

One more argument that food is not medicine: People who are completely healthy still need to eat.

Medicines are substances we use to maintain health and prevent or treat disease. I use medicine every day to stay alive. I could eat the healthiest foods every day, but without medicine I would still die. I am alive and able to write this article only because of an essential medicine (special thanks to Frederick Banting and Charles Best, the inventors of insulin). We are living longer than ever before due in great part to public health efforts and modern medicines.

When Hippocrates may have suggested that food is medicine, most people who became sick with a serious ailment died. The ancient Greeks didn’t know what bacteria or viruses were and many people believed that diseases were punishments from the gods.

Although that concept has largely fallen by the wayside, the food-is-medicine philosophy brings us back to the disease-as-punishment mindset. If you get sick, you must have failed by eating the wrong food. People who are sick do not need that extra baggage.

The food-is-medicine notion can be harmful in another way. People sometimes forgo lifesaving medical treatments in favor of so-called alternative therapies like juice diets and the like to try to cure cancer, AIDS, and other serious diseases.

Every time I see a story about someone choosing a food-based or dietary-supplement-based treatment over modern medicine, I blame “Let food be thy medicine.”

Pseudoscience and quackery love the food-is-medicine philosophy because it helps them sell their nutritional supplements, diet books, and therapy sessions. That’s reason enough for us to stop misquoting Hippocrates.

Food is food, medicine is medicine, and both of them are really amazing.

Dylan MacKay, Ph.D., is a nutritional biochemist at the Richardson Center for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals in the Department of Human Nutritional Sciences at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg and an expert adviser with EvidenceNetwork.ca.

  • I think that this article grossly missed the point of food as medicine. The idea is to eat what is good for the body in many ways every day and you are less likely to need medication for the diseases that occur because of the lack of good nutrition. Foods such as Stinging Nettle, Chickweed, Violets and many other things have things in them that can promote health that can reduce the chance of getting many problems and they can also help recover from major illnesses. They do not replace all medicines. Otherwise I would not carry certain antibiotics when I go on extended trips in the wilderness where an animal bite or cut could lead to an infection than no food could stop fast enough.

    Solomon Seal cures my acne and removes wrinkles from my skin. Nettles tea promotes great skin tone and thicker hair and stopped my reflux problems. Violets help my wife and her anxiety. Food CAN be medicinal and to say otherwise is very foolish.

  • I think this guy is an example of why medicine and healthcare is so screwed up. It seems that anyone can get at doctors degree even those with the intelligence of a moron.
    What an embarrassment for the Un of Manitoba.

  • “Food is so much more than medicine.”
    Okay, so now you are saying that it is medicine.
    Make up your mind.

  • I think you’re taking the idea a bit too literally. When I think of food as medicine, I think of preventative medicine, not a replacement for drugs or medication when it’s needed. We evaluate medicine on the basis of. “how will this benefit my health” prior to taking it. I think that this should be a consideration when choosing the foods we eat. I believe that knowledge of which micronutrients benefit organ function should be common knowledge instead of just going to the doctor for a pill to counteract the consequences of a poor diet.

  • I agree with Dylan as he states without medicine he would not be alive no matter what he ate. Food is more than medicine and people delay care and as he said follow quacks and this can lead someone to be sicker. I am able to see because of my glaucoma medicine. I am also a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist and know eating healthy food is essential for health but does not replace medicine.

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