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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  • I am happy for you and God bless you! But I was born with 3 autoimmune diseases in 1953 and have been on medications most of my life. I became prescription medication free because of Kangen water which they use in hospitals in Japan! I weaned myself off of all deadly medications that you say are keeping you alive but I beg to differ and I want to live a long life! I feel so much better, not groggy all of the time, can sleep in peace, have hundreds of blogs, on my way out of poverty at age 65, have over 200 investors, and this is just the beginning and it is all because I shared my story with the world and now people all around the world are no longer opioid drug users, over medicating on medications that only mask the disease and I can go and on about my blessed accomplishments thanks to my heavenly Father! I am so happy right now and thank God for He is why I am no longer and have learned how to manage the disease instead of allowing it to manage my life. I thank God each morning I awake because I am a new and improved person because I no longer depend on medications which I was addicted to and had been on for way too long. It is sad I had to get off of the medications to become healed but thanks to God and believing in His healing foods, cannabis and water I am healed! Amen

  • Many comments here make the author’s point. The article doesn’t say good nutrition is irrelevant. The reality is “all things in moderation” is all most people need to know. Extreme diets are far from medicine and have historically done great harm. They are a form of anorexicia. Diet protects against type 2 diabetes and helps control all diabetes but is no cure for type 1. It won’t cure cancer, and believing that it will shows ignorance of biology. Massive doses of vitamins can cause cancer. E and C particularly. I’ve know ice cream and bacon eaters who lived long and healthy lives and vegetarian yogis who died of disease at 45. Heredity and environmental toxins, stress, depression, guns and drugs factor in far more than most want to believe. Worrying excessively about food is currently an epidemic, and that is the point here. It’s true.

  • I’m not sure if I can buy into this article. Look at the rampant rise in Diabetes, Cancer, Heart disease and countless other ailments. The majority of it is related to diet pure and simple. Food may be better described as a preventative medicine. But, it’s a medicine for the majority of the epidemics that are starting to ravish the young people throughout this country. A diet replete with bad fats, sugars, refined carbs and chemicals are one of the major contributors of disease. So, the notion of healthy food not being a type of medicine seems a bit obtuse.

    • Also, there are COUNTLESS scientific studies done in reference to the efficacy of foods and herbs in context to fighting disease. For example, the simple Turkey Tail mushroom was found to be more effective for a veterinary study on cancer survivors. They were all blown away when they discovered it allowed dogs to survive longer than anything before. This is just one example. But, follow the science and follow the numbers. Dr Greger constantly uses scientific journal studies to support the premise that food can be medicine. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7rNY7xKyGCQ&t=4184s

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