Food as medicine is intrinsic to our cultural landscape. As Mark Hyman, MD - the internationally renowned physician, speaker, educator and advocate in the field of functional medicine, revolving around using food as medicine to support healthy longevity, energy, mental clarity and happiness - articulates, "The most powerful medicine is at the end of your fork, not at the bottom of your pill bottle. Food is more powerful than anything in your medicine cabinet."
Functional foods are natural, bioactive chemical compounds that have health-promoting, disease-preventing and medicinal properties. You may think of all foods as being functional, because they provide nutrients. You are right. However, functional foods represent foods that have health-promoting ingredients, or natural components. They include whole foods that are fortified, enriched or enhanced - as also dietary supplements
Food as medicine offers us a natural, holistic mode to explore core imbalances in various illnesses and emotional states. It looks at the essence of the diagnostic process as being fully geared to expand on our body's 'piano notes', analyse and accept expanded information.
Picture this. Our traditional illness model, keyed to look for specific causes, is not all-encompassing.
Here's why. Do you sometimes not feel there could be more than something you'd look into and add to your health-giving, wellness armamentarium? Yes, it's this glow that provides the light for us to think of functional medicine and natural wellness as practical components perched favourably at the complex, inter-related network of causes that eventually manifests as illness.
Functional medicine suggests that the best expressed definition of health and wellness is 'positive vitality' - with wholeness being the all-inclusive principle of our body, mind and spirit 'enterprise'. It is this attribute that provides us with the 'ammo' to be fully alive, healthy, happy and energetic. Besides, it offers us a dynamic approach to assessing, preventing and treating not just acute disorders, but also complex chronic diseases and syndromes.
A case in point - The Lancet, the respected medical journal, illustrates the travails of a 32-year-old woman, with progressive muscular weakness and pain, going through a hightech medical check-up, with no diagnosis made. It turned out that the woman, restricted to a wheelchair for two years, had chronic Crohn's disease - a type of inflammatory bowel illness - which was conventionally treated by removing a part of her colon. As a result, she wasn't absorbing vitamin D - the 'trigger' for her muscular debility and agony. After she was given vitamin D replacement therapy for just three weeks, she was able to walk without assistance.
You get the point. Functional medicine adds a new dimension to good health and medical treatment. In addition, it offers a useful road map for any individual, medical or healthcare professional to improvise on the 'piano notes', as it were. What's more, it can also help healthy individuals to experience deep, long-term healing, and also place appropriate corrective medical or surgical treatment on the fast track.
Functional foods meet our minimum daily requirements of nutrients, when taken in appropriate amounts. They also promote vibrant health and reduce the risk of disease.
They also help us in the management of a host of major health issues, viz., heart disease, diabetes, gut disorders, menopausal distresses, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis and cancer, not to speak of relatively less serious conditions. Nutrition specialists have identified hundreds of compounds with functional qualities, what with new discoveries being constantly made visà-vis the multifaceted benefits of functional foods.
Functional foods are natural, bioactive chemical compounds that have health-promoting, disease-preventing and medicinal properties. You may think of all foods as being functional, because they provide nutrients. You are right. However, functional foods represent foods that have health-promoting ingredients, or natural components.
They include whole foods that are fortified, enriched or enhanced - as also dietary supplements.
They all have beneficial effects on our health - far beyond essential nutrition.
The concept of functional foods is not a new phenomenon.
It has been perfected over the years. To pick one classical example: food companies began to add iodine to salt in an attempt to prevent goitre in the early 1900s. This was, perhaps, the first endeavour 'engineered' at 'crafting' a functional food through enrichment.
Many of the foods we consume are natural, whole foods. They don't become functional foods just because we know them by that name. Functional foods are derived from agricultural breeding, or through added nutrients and other ingredients. Nature has provided us with a rich variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, fish, and dairy and meat products.
They all comprise of numerous natural components, or nutrients.
They convey health benefits far beyond the fundamental diet. Examples: lycopene, the functional food component, in tomato; omega-3 fatty acids in fish and flaxseed; and genistein in soy-based foods, among others. What's more, the nutritional content of certain crops are used to bring about beneficial traits in plants and animals. To think of a brace of examples: beta-carotene-rich rice and vitamin-enhanced soybean. Cereals and flour, likewise, have added vitamins and minerals, including folic acid.
There is, of course, no single functional food 'potion', or formula, that can cure or prevent health problems. The best and easiest thing for us to do is simple: eat a well-balanced and varied diet with 4-5 servings of fruits and vegetables as well as foods with added beneficial components.
You should certainly read labels and scan through what specialists advocate by way of articles in the media, too. However, before you decide on making any major dietary amendment, you'd need to take adequate time to weighing your personal health.
Nidamboor is a wellness physician
A version of this article appears in the print on March 12, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.