Food As Medicine

By By Daniel Nadeau, MD

Categories: Diabetes Center
Dr. Nadeau is an accomplished physician who brings extensive experience to and the Mary & Dick Allen Diabetes Center as Program Director and Endocrinologist at Hoag Medical Group. While he has many areas of interest, the majority of his recent work, research, and lectures focus on diabetes, obesity, and nutrition.

The ideal diet is one rich in brightly colored vegetables and fruits, whole grains, legumes, and healthy proteins. Hippocrates once said “Let food be your medicine and your medicine be your food.” This is an important concept for us, especially as artificial products are introduced into the food marketplace with greater frequency. Many products are designed for unlimited shelf life and contain mainly hydrogenated oils and sugar. These kinds of products should be considered “food-like products” and not food. They should be avoided, especially by those with diabetes.

Look to real foods for sustenance: Blueberries, carrots, tomatoes, spinach, nuts, beans, whole grains. These are foods which have been part of the diet for thousands of years and which are keys to healthful living. It’s not unreasonable to look at a food and ask, “Was this available 100 years ago?” If not, it may be best to avoid it. Think twice about consuming it. The last 100 years have included tremendous increases in processed food filled with sugar and white flour, as well as the inclusion of far more animal products. A more simple, more traditional diet is clearly more healthy.

One way to start eating and living healthier is to take some cues from nature. Everyone, including people with diabetes, can benefit from consuming more brightly colored fruits and vegetables. Plants live is a sea of solar irradiation that would kill humans. They use colorful pigments not only to grow but also to absorb the free radicals and help to quiet the free radical storm which the sun’s energy can create. When we eat brightly colored vegetables and fruits, we transfer this protective power from the plants to us. We can all benefit from having these plant pigments slow the aging process in our hearts, our brains, our nerves, our kidneys, and - most exposed of all - our skin! (For great skin, boost plant intake in your diet!)

What is exciting about looking to color for dietary direction is that we are naturally drawn to colorful foods. As Mollie Katzen, author of the Moosewood Cookbook says: “Now there is research to prove that the brilliant colors and fruits and vegetables are themselves powerful nutrients, and that they attract us for good reason.”

Red cars, red flowers, and red lipstick tend to get our attention. Red is also a color that attracts us when it comes to food. It should! Seven of the top 20 high antioxidant foods are red and include strawberries, cherries, raspberries, red grapes and red peppers to name a few. Eating strawberries for example can directly reduce your ability to quench free radicals in your blood and can also lower CRP, a marker of inflammation in your body. Eat red foods!

Green foods are rich in many nutrients such as fiber, B vitamins, iron, calcium, and vitamin C and are especially high in lutein a carotenoid which is excellent for the eyes. Green foods protect from cataracts and macular degeneration, common causes of vision loss. Avocados have beta-sitosterol which directly competes with cholesterol for absorption in the gut and can help to lower cholesterol.

Out of the blue comes blueberries, which are one of the most powerful antioxidant foods we have. The color story of food was born with research by Jim Joseph, PhD, who showed improvement in memory and motor skills in older animals with the addition of blueberries to their diet. Other animal studies have shown increased neuronal growth, protection from Alzheimer’s disease, and increased environmental exploration. Preliminary human studies show improved memory and are consistent with animal trials.

People who eat greater amounts of whole grains and few refined grains (white flour and sugar) have a dramatically lower risk of developing diabetes. When the bread that you eat is dark and chewy and it seems you could almost build a house with it, you are eating a wholesome grain. Read the ingredients on bread. The first word should be the word “whole.” Don’t be fooled by multigrain bread which is mainly enriched flour.

Other powerful additions to the diet include spices such as cinnamon and turmeric. High fiber foods with a target of 24 to 50 grams of fiber per day can dramatically improve glucose control. Legumes are high in protein and release carbohydrates very slowly and should be part of the daily diet. Nuts seem to reduce the risk of heart disease, which is vitally important to those with diabetes. Dark chocolate is a potent antioxidant and has been shown to improve insulin action. Vinegartaken before the meal, may help to control post-meal blood glucose.

Hippocrates was right! Food can be medicine. Show thoughtfulness in your food choices. Take care of your body and it will take care of you!