But can we actually think of food as medicine?
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
Maybe it used to, but unfortunately, it doesn’t feel that simple anymore. Or perhaps fortunately, we know a whole lot more about the science of nutrition than we used to and have more effective ways to keep the doctor away!
Nutrition for physical healing
When I think of the word healing, I immediately think of physical healing. The kind that we might have to do in hospital or at home after a hospital visit. After a surgery, heart attack or stoke, pneumonia, while trying to mend a bad bedsore or during cancer treatments.
Registered Dietitians (RDs) do work in hospitals, but also in many other settings to help people heal, recover and maintain their best health. Places like public health centres/programs, diabetes education centres, private offices, family health teams, long term care homes, rehab facilities, etc.
Healing might mean a short-term plan or a longer journey. But it most likely means a journey that you’re on everyday.
Food as medicine for physical healing
For some of the people I work with, healing happens more like on a day-to-day basis. Their work goes beyond preventing health problems or even just managing a condition.
Some people have to eat in a certain way so they don’t get really sick. Or some people are at a much higher risk of nutrition-related problems because of a condition they already have. And that means they likely have to work on their nutrition everyday.
RDs help people to:
- build and maintain bones so falls are less likely to result in fractures
- protect muscle mass so age-related muscle losses don’t delay your recovery from the flu or a fall
- stabilize blood sugars and keep them in the best range for each person
- sort out ‘stomach problems’ including constipation or chronic diarrhea, celiac disease, ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease so you can eat without fear and discomfort
- plan diets for to manage the effects of kidney problems or dialysis
- recommend vitamin or mineral supplements if your condition affects your body’s ability to absorb or use the food you eat
- find the safest form of food if you aren’t able to chew or swallow food safely so you don’t lose weight unintentionally or miss out on important nutrition
These are examples of where RDs use Medical Nutrition Therapy to help people … and this is where RDs really shine as the experts in nutrition. This is why we have a science degree and are part of your healthcare team alongside physicians, nurses, pharmacists and other allied health professionals.
And this is where we come the closest to using food as medicine.
Using food for healing all areas of life
While the examples I’ve mentioned already are very important to health, I think we tend to overlook health and healing for the non-physical parts of our lives, such as:
- rebuilding the way we use food in an attempt to heal our emotions or mood
- eating in a way that appreciates how the food we put into our body is what our body uses to grow, build, recover
- getting our food in ways that helps the environment stay healthy, that uses less packaging and resources
- strengthening communities and relationships by gathering to cook and eat together
In the changing world of health, healing has taken on many meanings, which are going to be different for each person. The buzzword has become holistic, meaning treating a whole person rather than just physical symptoms of a disease.
Dietitians use holistic nutrition
While there are many people who are great at coaching and motivating people to change so they can heal – dietitian or not – it’s dietitians who have trained as part of medical healthcare teams. Our work is also holistic by nature. It’s actually not possible to do our jobs without considering someone’s social well-being, what they’ve learned through life experiences, their mental health or their personal wants in life.
If you’ve ever met with any healthcare professional for an initial assessment, you’ll know that there are a lot of questions. It might feel like you’re constantly telling people the same things over and over about your life. Some of those things might feel pretty personal – like about your stress levels or your relationships or your financial picture.
But if you’re living with a condition, you know very well that all those things affect how you’re feeling from day to day. It’s through all these questions that your healthcare team can help you find the tools that can get you back to living your life. Perhaps we can’t fix your stress level … but we do know of ways to deal with it and lessen its effect on your health.
Dietitians are more than gatekeepers of of nutrition info
Because of the changing needs of our clients and patients, the role of the RD has changed as well. RDs are no longer the gatekeepers of nutrition information. Gone are the days of simply telling people what they should eat, of explaining what foods have what nutrition, or teaching what ‘healthy foods’ are.
In many cases, people have already done their own internet research before coming to speak to the dietitian. Health/nutrition information, recipes and advice (to all extremes) is everywhere online. There are a lot of claims out there, from people who are willing to make a buck off of someone feeling quite vulnerable. And it’s just plain wrong.
This is where working with a dietitian can help you untangle all that you see on the internet – something that’s especially important for anyone wanting to heal in a safe way. We give you the science-based suggestions, the lessons of others, the tools to help you heal and recover.
RDs can help you reclaim your quality of life and your confidence with eating when new conditions bring on new limitations.
Healing is more than using food as medicine
As I mentioned at the beginning of Nutrition Month, I can’t say I recommend food AS medicine. But we do know that food helps our body and mind heal in many situations. More importantly, by managing conditions you might already have, you’re preserving your health and helping to prevent symptoms from getting worse or progressing as quickly.
I think we need to take a step back sometimes and ask ourselves what health, healing and wellness mean to us? It used to be thought that wellness meant the absence of disease. Fortunately, healthcare has also come a long way and we now understand that wellness is so much more.
Nutritional wellness is so much more than food. Healing is so much more than a disease to be cured.
Today as you go through your day, I want you to take a moment to think about what health and healing mean to you. How can you tell when you’re well or when you need some healing? What does health look like to you? What do you think of when you hear the word healing? How do you help your body and mind overcome the challenges that life hands out daily?
Are you reading this and thinking it’s time to work with a dietitian but not sure where to begin? Let’s have a chat – we can talk about if now’s the right time, what the plan might look like for you and how you can get started with your own path to health and healing.
You might also be interested in reading other articles from this year’s Nutrition Month …
Angela Hubbard is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE) with 10 years experience working in the field of nutrition. Her work focuses on helping people take back control of their health & weight … before it feels like their health controls their life. In her off time she loves swapping recipes, creating and exploring Northern BC life with her young family.