Friday, January 29, 2010

Food as Medicine

"Let food be thy medicine, and let thy medicine be food."

I have read numerous books and articles on nutrition and have generally followed the advice of the Canada Food Guide in choosing foods for myself and our family. Our daughters were all sensitive to cow's milk, yet I continued to give them dairy products after they were weaned thinking they would not be healthy without them. From my mid twenties on, I had frequent migraine headaches which would last three days at a time. No medication would relieve them. I had several episodes of back pain as well as inflammatory joint pain on a regular basis.

Just over a year ago I had surgery for a locked knee. The surgeon noted inflammatory damage beyond what he expected for my age. I was off work for weeks and gradually worked back to my normal hours in the following three months. In early April I developed acute plantar fasciitis in my right foot. My knee pain was nothing compared to the searing pain experienced when I walked. Custom orthotics helped somewhat, but I needed anti-inflammatory medication daily along with Zantac to protect my stomach. I then noticed my blood pressure readings were going up alarmingly from their low-normal averages. By mid-summer I was barely getting through a day of work and was unable to walk much outside after work. I did some research and found my anti-inflammatory medication could cause a rise in blood pressure. I decided to try an anti-inflammatory diet to see if I could get some pain relief.

In August I started by eliminating all sugar and refined foods from my diet. Within three days my foot pain was noticeably better. I then stopped eating meat and after a couple days of withdrawal, felt even better. Dairy was last and hardest to give up as I love plain yogurt. Eating a vegan diet with no refined foods allowed me to completely stop all medication and my blood pressure quickly dropped to normal. The night pain which interfered with my sleep cleared up. I went on a trip to the States for two weeks and walked a lot without having a flareup. (I managed to stick to my diet 90% of the time we were gone). I had a set back when I developed septic arthritis in my elbow after a big dental procedure in December. Once that was treated with antibiotics, my pain and inflammation has been diet controlled again. If I cheat, I have more pain. As a bonus, I have had no headaches at all and other hormonally related problems have cleared up completely.

I have not restricted my portions of allowed foods and am deprived at all. When I plan a meal for myself, I imagine a large garden with an orchard and can have anything from it I want. My meals are colourful and satisfying. It is sometimes socially awkward to refuse food and I do not like to bring attention to my preferences. I have eaten fish a few of times since the summer. I had clam chowder in a sourdough bowl on the wharf in San Francisco because I felt it was part of experiencing that city's culture. The food pyramid from Dr. Joel Fuhrman's books is a good model for the kind of eating I need to stick to. It allows some flexibility but is primarily vegetable and fruit based. I stick to the bottom three sections most of the time.

This way of eating is right for me but each person needs to figure out which foods are best for them. We would never think of filling the tank of our car with anything but the proper fuel. Our dog is on a restricted diet due to liver disease and we are careful to adhere to it. Why is it so hard to treat our bodies with the same respect? I have been inspired and encouraged by some bloggers who are long time vegetarians. Melissa (Empress of Dirt) lives in my community and has been very kind and helpful.

Many health conditions can be treated effectively with dietary modifications, yet most people have difficulty following recommendations. Taking medication and vitamins is no substitute for healthy food. David H. Murdock, the 86 year old chairman and owner of Dole foods is a good example of someone who adheres to this philosophy. He says,"No pills, not even aspirin, and certainly no supplements ever enter my mouth -- everything I need comes from my fish-vegetarian diet, which incorporates 30-40 different kinds of fruit and vegetables every week." (source) I think it would be impossible to feel deprived eating a diet with that amount of variety.

We ate at a new Central American restaurant last weekend and ordered a few of their vegetarian dishes. From the bean soup to the green salad with grilled fruit, each course was delicious and satisfying. There were eight different fruits and vegetables in the salad on the right alone. (The Becka has written a post about this restaurant on our blog An Insider's Guide to Waterloo Region)

Here are some other resources I have found helpful while changing the way I eat.

The China Study
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
Disease Proof


  1. Very interesting. I too have suffered over the years with foot aliments and most recently hip pain. Reading this post makes me wonder if it is diet related. Food for thought.

  2. Good for you Ruth! I'm sure buying fresh fruits and vegetables is still less expensive than having to pay for prescription meds, plus much healthier for you!

  3. Fascinating post, Ruth. I've been lacto-ovo vegetarian all my life, but more recently have been getting much better at eating things that are closer to the way they grow--salads, fruits, nuts and grains. I wish we would all think about these things and establish good eating habits when we're young....

  4. Good Post! I'm a no meds person myself ... won't even take an aspirin. Alas, I do still enjoy a lot of the things that aren't optimal for my health. I sure notice, that when we eat "our program", I feel a lot better.

    If you have a Seventh Day Adventist store in your area, check them out for the vegetarian/vegan way of life. We buy our bread, made from all sprouted grains, from a store in Abbotsford owned by some 7th Day ... also a lot of their beans and nuts ... good prices I might add. I've learned a lot from the older lady that runs the front desk.

    I sure learned a lot more about holistic health (and about vaccines) when we bought Mingus as I read up on how best to feed and care for him ... so he probably eats better than we do! ... and a hearty little fellow he is too.

    I'm so glad that diet has helped in your health ... I remember your feet. So awful not being able to walk! Probably my favourite outdoor thing to do.

  5. Great post! I've been mostly-vegetarian and organic for a couple of decades. I avoid packaged, processed foods, and I won't eat anything that contains ingredients I can't pronounce.

    When I'm in a social situation where I'm presented with "standard" American foods, I find I can't stand them. Packaged breads, cookies, etc, all taste like plastic and other chemicals. Nasty stuff. The only reason I ever thought they tasted good was because I grew up eating that way and knew no different.

    I come across a lot of dietary information on the web and it's tiresome to see how evangelical some folks can be: meat vs veggie vs vegan, carbs vs no-carb, etc. Thank you for not going there. We're not all alike and we don't all respond in the same way. The important thing is to eat as close to nature as possible and to eliminate the foods that make you feel bad.

  6. Excellent work, Ruth. You're an achiever, and I'm proud of your attitude and your food.
    In my last book on this subject, I tell the story of one of my patients with osteoarthritis who did something similar: I put her on an anti-inflammatory diet that was timed to anticipate her symptoms, and they improved measurably in 12 weeks.
    Keep it up!
    (n.b. The book is ChefMD's Big Book of Culinary Medicine)

  7. Cheryl- There can be many causes for pain but it is easy and safe to adjust our diet before trying medication.

    Ruthie- My grocery bill is lower without dairy and meat so I splurge on really nice fruit and vegetables, even at winter prices.

    Ginger- I remember your post about becoming vegan. People like you have planted seeds of interest in my mind.

    CS- You are another inspiration with your healthy diet and active lifestyle. Mingus does eat better than most people.

    Buunygirl- I am not a diet expert and would not want to become fanantical about the way I eat. This has been a personal journey and your last sentence summarizes things very very well.

    Dr. Puma- Thanks for your comment and the link to your site. I had not come across it in my searches.

  8. Orthotics plus good running shoes work pretty well for me. I know, however, that most women would have issues wearing runners. Thank goodness Cuppa has good feet.

  9. The China Study is absolutely revolutionary. :)

    Good on you for attempting not to "cure" a problem, but moreso to build better health - and the truth is that the building blocks of health and wellness lies in the diet.

    I find that adding turmeric to my roasted veggies has an anti-inflammatory effect. Turmeric + roasted baked parsnips = golden yummy fries! Try it - you'll like it, I suspect. :)

  10. This is fascinating to me Ruth! I know that what you're saying is true and it resounds with me...but you're right...I find it hard and I don't honour what my body requires from my diet and kick myself when I end up with a headache and resort to the old Advil routine. I believe the answers are in nature ultimately! Great post!

  11. we have always used food as medicine. Today is the first day I start a 3 day fruit fast.

  12. Interesting.I'm all for trying to avoid prescription medicine whenever possible. So often a medicine will treat one problem but cause another.I've bee gradually trying to improve my diet over the years.If I had a pesrsonal chef it wouldn't be a problem. Sometimes I just don't feel like putting the effort into buying the right foods and preparing them.I commend you on your self discipline.


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