Here’s Why Food Isn’t Medicine

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Food is so many things. It’s comfort, culture, and common ground. And, it’s chock-full of nutrients that our bodies need to function. But make no mistake: Food isn’t medicine.

Food can only do so much.

There are plenty of influencers and “experts” out there making claims that certain foods have seemingly magical health benefits, or that certain diets can prevent and cure disease.

This simply isn’t true! In my journalistic work, I’ve spoken with countless physicians, dietitians, researchers, and mental health experts who are adamant that food can never be a replacement for medicine. And in my nutrition training and research, I’ve seen the evidence showing that food is only one factor contributing to our overall health.

To be clear: Food can be a powerful tool when it comes to mental, physical, and social health. One reason I’m so passionate about intuitive eating is that I’ve seen how life-changing a good relationship with food can be. I’ve worked with patients who discover intuitive eating after years of food issues and feel like it shifts their entire life outlook for the better. I’ve moved from disordered eating behaviors to intuitive eating myself and experienced so many benefits. I have much less food and body anxiety, no more out-of-control feelings around food, and so much more brain space for other things. And, I’ve seen the evidence—140 studies and counting!—that intuitive eating can have a powerful and positive impact on all aspects of health.

Diet is less important than social determinants.

There’s something that all the snake-oil-selling wellness “experts” don’t tell you when they’re advertising their latest diet or supplement. Lifestyle behaviors account for only about 30 percent of our health outcomes.

What does that mean? How did that number come to be? What it means is that behaviors — eating; physical activity; tobacco, alcohol and drug use; and sexual activity — aren’t the only things that determine our health outcomes. It comes from a huge body of research, but many organizations often cite this 1999 policy paper published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences as the original source.

So, what else impacts our health? As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains, “are conditions in the places where people live, learn, work, and play that affect a wide range of health and quality of life risks and outcomes.” This includes household income, race, gender, geographical location, family situation and other things that are often beyond a person’s control. The same research that estimates health behaviors as accounting for 30 percent of our health, estimates that social determinants make up 40 percent.

Food can’t eliminate other risk factors.

Social determinants like poverty, racism, lack of education, and no access to healthcare health increase a person’s risk of health problems. Eating a nutritious diet won’t eliminate these risks. And frankly, it’s insulting to suggest that someone try and “fix” their health problems through nutritious food when they can’t afford to do so.

But it’s about more than just social determinants of health. People get sick all the time, for reasons entirely out of their control. Genetics, social determinants, age, gender, and straight up randomness might predispose someone to a certain health condition. In many cases, medicine can help immensely in the management and treatment of these conditions. These medicines have been rigorously tested, and the benefits far outweigh the consequences in the majority of cases.

Medicine is extremely powerful.

The “food is medicine” crowd often claims that pharmaceutical drugs and modern Western medicine practices are dangerous, but that just isn’t true. Of course there are instances of people having negative experiences with a drug or a doctor. But by and large, modern medicine greatly improves both life expectancy and quality of life.

Eschewing medicine (both drugs and regular preventative healthcare) in favor of eating a certain way is downright dangerous. As a dietitian, I can guide you through how to establish a good relationship with food. I can even work with you to figure out a way of eating that helps manage your health conditions. But I’ll never, ever tell you to forgo legitimate medicine in favor of food. That’s unethical, and can lead to real harm.

I’ve written more about this elsewhere.

Curious about the role that food plays in disease and disease management? Here’s my HuffPost article about why food isn’t medicine.

Want to learn more about why food can never replace accessible, equitable healthcare? Here’s my Outside article about why medicine is still the best medicine.

Free Intuitive Eating Course

Looking for a free intuitive eating course? Whether you’re new to the anti-diet approach or you’ve been trying to work towards intuitive eating for a while, our 5-Day Intuitive Eating Starter Course is a great start for anyone who’s tired of obsessing over “wellness” and constantly struggling with food and body acceptance.

3 Comments

  1. Inchara

    Christine the statements you make that food isn’t medicine are tremendously dangerous ones. It is key to know that practically every culture in the food has used food as medicine.

    Food is in the business of healing. Modern medicines are in the business of curing. They are 2 completely different things. Food helps you avoid hospitalization. But if you do get hospitalized you need modern medicines. Modern medicine cures the symptoms. Food helps in not getting the symptoms again.

    I highly recommend you read and involve yourself in cultures that have done so since the dawn of time.

    “Social determinants like poverty, racism, lack of education, and no access to healthcare health increase a person’s risk of health problems. Eating a nutritious diet won’t eliminate these risks. And frankly, it’s insulting to suggest that someone try and “fix” their health problems through nutritious food when they can’t afford to do so.”

    ^ This argument is beyond flawed. It is because of these social determinants they can’t afford nutritious foods. Not the other way around. Again, please do your research on looking at both sides of the coin rather than just one.

    Again, Food is in the business of healing. Modern medicines are in the business of curing. They are 2 completely different things.

    • Christine Byrne, MPH, RD, LDN

      I recommend asking your primary care provider, since everyone’s needs are slightly different. Generally, it’s best to buy supplements that are certified by either United States Pharmacopeia (USP) or NSF, two trustworthy third-party labs that help ensure you actually get what’s on the label.

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