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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.


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

  • By no means is the Hippocrates quote saying, ‘don’t have medicine’..! He was a doctor who prescribed medicine.
    Bcs you have type one diabetes and are insulin dependent does not mean food cannot be medicine.
    Not for your condition and many others yes in many cases.
    There are many variables and yes there are alternative quacks who give healthy living/eating a bad wrap. Also many orthodox quacks who overprescribe medication.
    Your blog sums up the medicinal benefits of healthy eating as nonsense and that jst isn’t true.
    There are many many examples and benefits to medicinal eating eg, diabetes type 2, (stop eating sugar and begin eating foods which can help lower blood sugar levels),Hyperglycaemia,Coeliac disease, High blood pressure and many more dietary causes ailments.
    I think you have not only undermined healthy eating but have done an injustice to many an ill person. Health in its entirety is not a contest but a means of being disease free no matter what the method, ‘orthodox AND alternative, genetic or anthropogenic. Not one or the other. One thing is certain, health is wholistic!

  • Dear author, I understand that this article was written in good faith in order to raise awareness of those misguided – by the Nutraceutical Companies – consumers. But just by reading the title, it is my opinion that the article is misguiding in itself; perhaps a better title would be: “Hey Nutraceutical Companies, stop misquoting Hippocrates!”. In addition, I think there is a little more to it than this being “just” a maxim or a simple quote if you want. Before jumping into conclusions of what the ancients did back then with regards to their health (meaning a balance of one’s physical, emotional and spiritual state) and by attempting to extrapolate this as a riality/fact to the modern world, will not really work; simply because you cannot compare apples and oranges like for like. Also, the fact that the ancient Greeks did not have the means to “see” a bacterium, like we can now with modern techniques, does not really mean that they did not have any observational skills which they developed over the years, so that they would know from experience that if one got injured in battle and left the wound untreated, one would simply die because of infection – hence the copper armour – (this is just one of the many examples from the bibliography). Let us not forget that it was because of these observations (and let us not forget about luck!) that sciences flourished and people developed an interest in learning about medicine and nutrition, also physics, chemistry etc. I will not even get into the “God/s sent us this punishment” argument, as this is a separate issue – not scientific. One simply needs to consider what was meant by “medicine” back then and what was regarded as “treatment” back then. By reading the facts, you will find that the “philosophy” of medicine and treatment has little to do with that of today’s classical medicine. Having said that, when recovering from certain types of surgery or when being treated, there is always specific types of food that you are supposed/guided by modern day health practicioners to eat (i.e. a patient with high blood pressure should reduce the amount of sodium in their diet etc.). Even when one is healthy, if their diet is altered with more saturated fats and refined sucrose, I think you can guess that in the long term this organism will not last very long. Therefore, one cannot argue the fact that food (including water of course) plays a very important role in our lives, both in sickness and in health. So, instead of generalising and blaming the maxim itself (or Hippocrates if you are foolish enough to do so), blame the marketing teams behind the modern society we are living in.

    With kind regards,

  • I think the view that food isn’t allowed to be considered medicinal and enjoyable at the same time is extremely narrow. Good food that is cultural and social can also be healing. Actually, most foods that are considered native to cultures worldwide ARE healthy. It is processed food that is not medicinal. The author’s argument that eating healthy food doesn’t always prevent disease and death is true but futile because eating “healthy”, whatever the definition, also does have great benefit and the benefits outweigh the “costs”. Prophylaxis won’t save everyone but we do it anyway because it helps. Same goes for eating well. I think the author should expand their palate because there are sooooo many healthy and cultural dishes to be enjoyed as they heal you; they are not at all limiting.

  • I read your article with an open mind, but as a stage 4 cancer patient – not my belief. I have spent lots of years researching what is the best way to help my body heal – I have to just nod my head. I am using food to create an unpleasant internal terrain inside my body; anti-angiogenic food; food that encourages apoptosis. That is medicine for me. (The word medicine is probably more figurative) I think the word you are really referring to is “pharmaceuticals.”

  • Before you go singing the praises of pharmaceuticals:

    Medicine, properly prescribed and properly administered under hospital settings causes, at minimum, 100,000 deaths annually.

    Funny how every treatment I was given, including two surgeries, multiple neurologists and urologists and other specialists nearly killed me and yet no one bothered to suggest dietary changes for Interstitial Cystitis and depression. Until the Interstitial Cystitis Association suggested dietary changes, I’d no clue why I had IC.

    Cutting out sugars, while adding probiotics + NAC & Collagen relieved the pain associated with IC and frequency, as well as eliminating the depression I battled for 30 years.

    I’ll stick to using my body’s response to foods as an indicator as to what I will choose to consume.

    Also, “food as culture” isn’t a valid argument. That’s a social construct, not a scientific one.

  • I read the title thinking “Sarcasm is fun” then after a quick scan I realized the author isn’t joking. I won’t even read it, but I hope that anyone that reads this realizes this is a juvenile opinion by someone that just wants attention regardless of the harm it may cause. People have cured themselves with food. Keep reading, keep searching, keep investigating alternatives, just not here.

  • you need to get out of your lab and talk to real people who have many different chronic medical conditions. take a course in functional medicine, learn about ayurvedic medicine and develop an unbiased open mind. you may realize that we exist today because of the foods our ancestors ate and used as medicine, as there was no modern medicine until about 100 yrs ago. i agree with the con artists selling supplements, but by associating and equating the products these business people sell as food, it makes you look foolish. so go ahead, eat a box of oreos, twinkles as in your mind, food won’t have any effect on your diabetes.

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