The Healing Power of Nutrition, Beyond “Let Food Be Thy Medicine”
The famous quote by Greek physician Hippocrates, “Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food” has stood the test of time. Yet at the same time, the prevalence of eating disorders continues to rise within a society that simultaneously continues to place hope in false claims of happiness and freedom through the latest greatest fad diet. The power of food to heal and restore remains, but the message has become distorted and messy. The current focus remains on the “should nots,” limiting nutrition to a list of rules that must be followed and consequences that must be paid. This focus narrows the role of nutrition into a singular yet distorted purpose, tightly controlled and enmeshed with the perception of self-worth and value. It’s time to take another look at the restorative power of nutrition to not only heal the body but also nurture life in all its dimensions—body, mind, movement, and relationships.
SUPPORTING THE BODY
The first and most obvious role of nutrition is to support the physical body itself. Although social media’s food messages typically demonize a type of food in its entirety, the truth is that all foods (fuels)— carbohydrates of all types, protein of all types, and fats of all types—play unique supporting roles in healing and sustaining our physical bodies. These different food (fuel) groups work synergistically together in beautiful balance. Understanding what each fuel group provides and how the fuel groups work together reinforces trust in the body’s ability to balance the food it receives. This balance does not depend on perfection in either exact measurements or micro-managing macronutrients and/or calories to be effective—a concept that is hard to believe now but becomes easier as you practice balanced eating from all fuel groups consistently.
Take a glimpse into each fuel group’s unique role and the synergistic balance between them:
All carbohydrates (grains, starchy vegetables, fruits, and water-based vegetables) provide energy, and how quickly you can use that energy will vary depending on how much fiber, protein, and fat are also available at the same time. All carbohydrates are broken down into glucose during digestion. Glucose is the simplest form of energy and supplies the fuel for most of your body’s energy needs (up to 98%!). In fact, glucose is THE one and only preferred fuel for your brain cells. It is stored as glycogen in our muscles and liver and used by our cells to do metabolism’s work. Different grains and starches will feel differently in your body, and that is a benefit, not a detriment. Sometimes your body NEEDS quick energy. Sometimes you just WANT quick energy. Quick energy has a purpose, and quick energy can just be enjoyable. Likewise, slow energy has a purpose, and slow energy can just be enjoyable. Fruits and vegetables, part of the carbohydrate fuel group, provide most of the vitamins and minerals that our body needs to do its work. Just like the spark plugs in a car, which produce the electric spark that ignites the gasoline fuel, vitamins and minerals are the spark plugs that ignite the body’s metabolism. And all the carbohydrates, grains, fruits, and vegetables provide hundreds of phytochemicals, which are strong protectors of our immune system. “Phyto”chemicals fight (“phyt”) infection and diseases, so the more variety and balance you eat in your meals and snacks, the more vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals you provide your body.
Next up in the fuel group list is protein. All proteins (animal proteins including meats, poultry/eggs, and dairy, fish, nuts/seeds, and vegetarian grain-based) provide the building blocks to repair, build, and strengthen muscles, which include the muscles we can see and feel, and the muscles that make the internal organs that we can’t see or feel but need to survive. Proteins also help create our hormones, enzymes, hair, skin, and nerve cells. All the different proteins offer vitamins and minerals, but each type of protein offers something unique. Protein, regardless of the type, is never meant to be used for energy, so if you do not eat enough carbohydrate energy, your body will work to restore balance by converting protein into glucose if it must. It doesn’t want to do this, since protein’s job is not providing energy but building and repairing structure. However, the body is designed to work together and will pull from one place to supply another if it must do so to maintain balance and keep the body’s metabolism running without compromise. The body can convert protein (from either the food choices you eat or your own body muscle) into glucose if it does not have enough glucose available in other foods to fuel the brain, body, and cells, but it pays a price to do this. Your body will give up some of its protein structure that will not immediately affect survival, such as the muscles in your arms and legs, and your digestive enzymes and reproductive hormones, to be able to create glucose through a balancing process called “gluconeogenesis,” or “glucose-new-beginning.” Over time, the loss of muscle mass means the loss of strength in your body and immune system, the loss of warmth from the energy produced in muscles themselves, the loss of hair and skin cells, the loss of a healthy functioning reproductive system, and the loss of a smoothly-running digestive system that prevents bloating and constipation. Protein fuel balances with energy fuel to keep your body living well.
Finally, the fat fuel group remains. Without enough fuel from this fuel group, your brain, skin and hair health, your bones, your reproductive health, your immune system, your ability to clot blood when wounded or to prevent bruising, and your energy level will all be compromised. The fat fuel group balances the carbohydrate fuel group by prolonging energy and carrying the fat-soluble vitamins that are found in vegetables and fruits around the body so they can do their jobs. The fat fuel group balances the protein fuel group by carrying the fat-soluble vitamins found in dairy products and fortified vegetarian foods to where your body needs them. And, most importantly, fats combine with proteins to create the actual foundational structure of the brain, hormones, enzymes, neurotransmitters, cells, and the immune system. Each fuel group provides its own unique contribution to the overall balance of physical health and well-being. And if one of these fuel groups is neglected, the others work hard to compensate, which takes a toll on the body’s physical system over time but temporarily supports life in the moment. Nutrition is indeed our physical body’s medicine as the balance of fuel groups works its healing magic.
SUPPORTING THE MIND
Nutrition’s next supporting role is focused on the mind. The role of proteins and fats to build the brain’s cells and foundational structure, and the unique role of carbohydrates to fuel that same structure’s every action reflects the first level of support for our physical brain itself. This same process also works to heal the gut, our body’s “second brain.” The gut is the production factory for about 90% of our body’s serotonin levels, and the brain pulls in the remaining 10%. Since serotonin is a critical neurotransmitter/hormone that regulates moods, this relationship shows that nutrition reaches beyond brain and gut structure itself and plays a pivotal role in the connection of our moods and thoughts. Eating disorders are emotionally fueled by distorted thoughts and beliefs around food, body, and self-worth, and balanced consistent nutrition helps build and support the brain/gut’s actual communication system that can change those distortions and beliefs into health and healing. The more nourished the brain and gut, the more productive therapy can be; therefore, nutrition is not just our physical body’s medicine but also our mind’s medicine for our thoughts, moods, and beliefs.
Nutrition’s third supporting role is focused on movement. Our bodies are designed to move, as our physical structure itself “faces forward” in the direction of our feet, our trunk, even our eyes and nose. Physical movement is an integral part of active daily living, which can include movement in the form of an exercise activity. However, movement itself is so much more than just the time given to an exercise. It is what our body is doing when we tell a story in excitement, moving our hands to emphasize highlights. It is when our body moves toward a friend to give a hug and share tears or laughter. It is when our body goes through the movements of getting dressed, eating a meal, going to the grocery store, walking to the mailbox, and the countless other miniscule activities that support a “normal day.” The trap that society and social media set is the perception that the only movement that counts, and the only movement that ‘needs fuel,’ is one that involves a specific exercise, a certain amount of sweat, a physical challenge that pushes the body to a never-satisfied next level. And an eating disorder can focus all its energy on striving to meet this never-satisfied goal or doing everything it can to avoid it out of fear of failure or judgment. Movement is meant to sustain life, not check off a performance list. Movement is possible through the support given by the physical body in the action itself nourished by the nutrition which fuels every muscle and cell involved. Nutrition also supports the movements not seen by the external eye, such as the mind-blowing circulatory system in which our blood travels the internal distance of four times around the U.S. from east to west coast daily. Therefore, nutrition is not only our body and mind’s medicine but also the behind-the-scenes support of every external and internal movement our body makes.
The fourth supporting role nutrition plays involves relationship. Certainly, nutrition is directly connected with the relationship between food and body and how it lives out in our beliefs, thoughts, and behaviors. Embracing both nourishment and pleasure from food on a physical and emotional level is equally vital to recovery from an eating disorder. For example, pleasure can be discovered in both choices of warm brownies or fresh-picked strawberries, and nourishment can be discovered in both crispy vegetables dipped in hummus or tortilla chips and hot cheese dip. Nutrition is not either/or – it is learning to honor your body with balanced fuel choices as you simultaneously honor your mind with freedom to enjoy all foods without self-judgment or shame. This is hard. This may take a long time and require you to fight conflicting thoughts over and over, meal after meal, day after day, as you learn to set aside moral judgment that has somehow become attached to simple nutrition choices. This is a relationship on which lasting recovery depends and the difficult journey is worth the freedom waiting. On another level, the meal experience itself provides an opportunity to experience relationships, with the sights, sounds, and smells of the meal setting and with the other people joining you at the table. Relationships fostered and nurtured over a meal are special and can be an unsuspecting yet powerful benefit of nutrition itself, as shared food has been a hallmark of community since the beginning of time.
The healing power of nutrition is a combination of multiple supporting roles that synergistically and unselfishly work together. “Let food be thy medicine” has withstood the test of time because it reflects the power of nutrition to heal as it supports our physical body in its literal structure, function, and energy needs; our mind and its connection to our thoughts, beliefs, values, and behaviors; our movement as it sustains daily living on an external and internal level; and our relationships with both our own bodies, our friends and family, and our broader community of support.