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.

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.

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  • Did any of the posters leaving extremely negative comments against this author actually read the article? I think it is a well-measured approach to address a concern in society. He expresses the depth of the philosophical notion of “medicine”. Does it not feed the idea of being sick, disabled, dysfunctional? If we believe food is medicine, we are denying that food AND medicine can both be so much more than this sad linear track.

  • I think this guy/girl is completely misguided by someone who is completely misguided by someone who is completely misguided by someone and so on. They don’t understand the basic concepts of body functioning fundamentals and how the food we take acts in a very certain way to produce healthy body and mind. It’s not Hippocrates who is wrong, it’s you author, you are wrong. Period.

    • Absolutely agree with Hanu. When the body is fed proper nutrition over a sustained period, it heals itself of maladies that might be present in the body. Heart Disease, Diabetes, Allergies, Inflammatory Diseases etc have all been reversed by eating proper nutrition. When you can heal yourself or reverse maladies by nutrition you in a sense are using food as medicine.

  • This article is much too negative toward the way people eat and disease. I have chf and and arthritis and am allergic to many of the usual medications. I have found that I can control most of my symptoms through what I consume. I see my doctor regularly and I think she is amazed at the improvement in my health.

  • This article is obviously coming from someone who has never had a disease or illness that was completely reversed by diet. Most medicine treats the symptom, not the cause. Yes, food has other benefits, but to dismiss its medicinal value is just plain uninformed. This article does a complete disservice to everyone who relies on a healthy diet to keep a disease in remission.

  • Plus, there is no proof Hippocrates even said this. Although he should have because it is true and wise. Aside from a handful of obvious examples in the affirmative, the jury is still out whether pharmaceuticals do more harm than good.

  • A part of plant base diets such as gotukola is an arthiritis plant . So food is our medicine. In ancient history there was no processed food. Presently in the modern world human beings are suffering from chronic diseases. In Ayurvedic cuisine most of the plants we eat are medicine.

  • Bad article Dylan. You read like the stereotypical pretentious Ph.D that has no idea what he’s talking about…. doing more harm than good. Having a terminal degree in a subject only means you’re 5 years from finding out everything they taught you was wrong. No humility… How about this for preventive medicine Dr. Slappy MacKay? “Living to 83 on average, the Japanese have long had one of the highest life expediencies. Okinawa, often called ‘the land of immortals’, has been a global center for longevity research, as these southern Japanese islands have more than 400 centenarians. Much credit for this has been given to the local diet, which includes plentiful tofu and sweet potato, and a small amount of fish.”

    The 3rd leading cause of death in the US is death by medicine. Modern Day hunter-gather populations have the same life expectancy without western medicine. Different foods are proven to support immune system, digestive system, and overall health. etc. You have no idea how the machine of medicine works- the patient is not represented in this system. I was a paramedic, worked ambulances, er’s, icu’s before moving to med-tech sales marketing and surgeon training. After seeing first hand the horror of how med-tech is introduced to market, how it is evaluated for use, how efficacy data is purposely not collected, how 90% of efficacy data that exists comes from the company selling the related technology, how health systems happily comply with signing pricing non-disclosure agreements so they can bill insurance companys 3x-7x what they paid; I spent 7 years launching a private equity backed disruption model to being transparency to med-tech pricing and efficacy data that could not get through the special interest machine. You keep your medicine, those of us on the inside, many with terminal medical degrees think 70% of the system is poison. Also believe diet is a major cause of the skyrocketing number of disease sufferers. Its sad that the nation is fighting over payment systems, Single Payer vs Private, with no understanding of what we’re paying for, or what should be covered by insurance. The machine is corrupt big time, I barely scratched the surface. Actually one more to make you sick. I interviewed for a pharma sales job 3 years ago, where their “billion dollar drug” (This is how they refer to their top seller) was for opioid induced constipation, exciting I know. Anyhow, it wasn’t going well, so I asked the interviewing sales manager “Isn’t the opioid crisis going to decrease usage and therefore reduce the use of their drug. He all but laughed…”No, pain is now a vital sign, usage is going to continue to grow…” Pain is a vital sign?? Yes folks, it is now listed as that in nursing protocols, check it for yourself. Guess where that came from. Your a shill Mr. PhD. and you don’t know it. Intelligent people are the easiest to manipulate. This is why medical doctors work the hardest and everyone else gets paid. Feel free to email me, if you care to discuss.

  • I really hate articles like yours. First of all FOOD is NOT Love when it causes you to throw baby chickens in a blender because they are Male. Ignorance and arrogance does not come from the vibration of love. Second You wouldn’t need insulin if you ate a proper diet and lost your current way of eating and the way you think. last but not least the diseases you mentioned like AIDS can be healed if treated properly at the right time before it is too aggressive. Do yourself a favor and search the late, great DR. Sebi

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