A young registered dietitian offers a quick look at food as preventive medicine
By Hana Chehade
Food is everywhere! It is often the center of social gatherings and parties. Many of our travel plans include tasting foreign dishes, while some of us enjoy spending time in our kitchen trying out new recipes. We need food to fuel our bodies, to help us grow and function properly. And when we eat well, we feel happier, more energetic, and just better overall. But we also enable our bodies to fight sickness and decrease the risk of developing chronic diseases.
You may have heard before the phrase “food is medicine,” and possibly thought of centuries-old cures to ailments, like ginger for an upset stomach or elderberries for a sore throat. Most of what we think of as medicinal foods could be considered ways in which nature around us can help relieve symptoms of sickness. But what about the preventive side? There has been a shift in focus from chronic disease treatment to prevention. After all, if we work harder to prevent an ailment, we eliminate the need to seek treatment for it.
So what’s the best way to make sure we’re getting the proper nutrients needed to combat disease, but also enjoy the foods we eat? Well, the answer is different for every individual, and it can get confusing with the hundreds of diets out there. But according to the US News and World Report, the diets that are ranked the best for us year after year really have more principles in common than not.
Diets such as the Mediterranean diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet encourage us to: 1) eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes and healthy fats, 2) consume dairy, poultry and eggs in moderation, and 3) save red meat and sweets for special occasions. This way of eating not only ensures consumption of a diversity of nutrients, but also gives us the opportunity to explore new foods, while still being able to regularly enjoy the kinds of foods we love.
Research shows the tremendous power of a well-balanced diet of wholesome foods in preventing disease. Diets with healthy fats coming from foods like avocados, olive oil and nuts help to prevent cardiovascular disease. Phytonutrients, specific nutrients found in plant foods, help to lower inflammation and prevent the development of cancer. The New York Times recently published a magazine issue that highlights food as medicine, where even physicians join the argument that food can often be a better prescription for disease treatment and prevention than medicine.
As a registered dietitian, I fully believe in the power of food, and I have thankfully found my way into leading a program in Upstate New York where I can help others to not only heal from current chronic illnesses, but to also prevent these same diseases through food--what we call medical nutrition therapy. With Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany, I coordinate a program called the Food Farmacy, which is located inside a local healthcare center. The Food Farmacy is a medically-tailored food pantry program designed for individuals and families who may be struggling to manage and/or prevent chronic illnesses due to low access to nutritious foods.
During the program, we take the time to get to know the client and any household members. We carefully consider each person’s medical backgrounds, food allergies and preferences, and the client’s current knowledge in nutrition and food preparation, among other data. We go into depth on understanding each client’s personal barriers to eating healthy foods — transportation, lack of knowledge or interest, or more commonly, money.
With this information, we begin to assist in finding resources that reduce or eliminate these barriers over time by offering them access to free, healthy foods throughout the duration of the program — temporarily eliminating many barriers to encourage change.
It’s important to remember that all foods can fit into a healthy lifestyle. Notice how the Mediterranean and DASH diets don’t fully eliminate any one food, but rather celebrate the bounty earth has to offer, and encourages us to enjoy and cherish every bite!
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