“Let medicine be thy food, and let food be thy medicine.” ~Hippocrates
What is food as medicine, really? This obviously is not a new concept since Hippocrates was talking about the idea almost 2,400 years ago.
The term “food as medicine” is used a lot these days but there’s actually no formal agreed-upon definition. To me, it is allowing the food we eat to nourish our bodies and improve health and wellness.
Vegetables are rich with nutrients that help support health, including vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients (lutein, flavonoids, isoflavones, lignans, etc.), fiber, and more. There is an innate wisdom in consuming the whole plant vs. singled out nutrients, which we often overlook in our Western culture. Plus, no single vegetable contains all of the nutrients you need. That is why it is so important to consume a variety of differently colored vegetables (to eat the rainbow!).
When you search on PubMed for “Health Benefits of Vegetables,” 45,087 articles come back! I think it’s safe to say that the health benefits of consuming vegetables are well studied and provide a minimal risk of side effects.
One of the most well-studied ways of eating is the Mediterranean diet in which people often are consuming four or more cups of vegetables daily as part of this plant-forward lifestyle.
The USDA currently recommends that adults consume 2.5 cups of a variety of vegetables daily, and they found that only 1 in 10 people report actually doing this.
Why are we not eating more vegetables? There are many theories out there as to what has changed, including:
- Processed, packaged, convenience foods that are calorically dense but nutritionally lacking have become a larger part of our diet and are widely available and have altered our taste perception and cravings.
- Breeding vegetables for durability and shelf life makes them tougher, less tasty, and overall less appealing. Although there is certainly a resurgence in gardening, farmers' markets, and discovering unique heirloom varieties, when it comes to the grocery store, the diversity and nutrient density of the produce available to most consumers has gone down. There are over 1,000 different types of vegetables grown around the world, but often we see only a few of the most common types of vegetables at the grocery store, ones that are not the most nutritious or the best tasting—and aren’t exciting.
- Cost and access can be another issue. Nutrient-dense fresh vegetables are more expensive than processed foods and can be harder to find.
- Working with fresh vegetables can require preparation and cooking, which takes time and knowledge.
A large meta-analysis found that, for each additional cup of fruit or vegetables consumed, there’s a 4% reduction in risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.
Many of the functional medicine therapeutic lifestyle interventions that are used with published beneficial outcomes using food as medicine, such as those by Dr. Wahls (reversing M.S.) and Dr. Bredesen (reversing cognitive decline), recommend consuming much higher amounts of vegetables daily (often 6-9+ cups) with a focus on color (phytonutrients), seasonality, and growing methods.
I know that if you’re not eating many vegetables right now, thinking of consuming 6-9 cups of vegetables might seem overwhelming and certainly could cause some digestive distress. If you’re looking to increase the number of vegetables you’re consuming, I recommend making small changes and then letting them build. Start with adding just one more cup of vegetables to your diet daily, and try to increase that by an extra ½ cup/day each week so that your body has time to adapt to the increase in fiber and phytonutrients.
I want to be clear that I’m not saying vegetables alone can cure every condition nor that dietary changes are all that’s needed but, for many people, it is the most powerful place to start.
The DASH study (vegetable-forward) showed us that dietary interventions can be as impactful as medications, achieving an average blood pressure reduction of 11mmHg systolic and 6mmHg diastolic.
Here are a few of Dr. Amy's favorite ways to create nourishing meals that are full of vegetables:
- Vegetable soups and stews: Although boiling vegetables in water can leach nutrients like B vitamins and vitamin D into the water, if you are consuming the water, you aren’t losing nearly as many nutrients.
- Vegetable forward spaghetti and sauce: When making tomato sauce, the recipes usually call for letting it simmer for hours; this not only makes it taste great but can triple the lycopene content. At the end of cooking, fold in some spinach, onions, garlic, cooked/chopped carrots, eggplant, or any other vegetables you have on hand. Additionally, making vegetable noodles is easy! Zucchini, sweet potato, yellow squash, and beets all work great as noodles.
- Lightly sautéed greens are a great way to increase how many greens you are able to eat. The key here is to cook them just until they turn bright green, but aren’t overly wilted. I love to serve cooked greens with eggs, in veggie-forward bowls, on pizza, and even in savory oatmeal.
- Rainbow salads, bowls, and stir-fries are another great way to incorporate as many colorful vegetables as you have on hand into one meal.
One of my favorite quotes about food as medicine is from Krystal Register, MS, RDN, LDN:
“When we talk about Food as Medicine we are talking about real food with real benefits to real people–not pharmaceuticals or alternative therapies, detoxes, cleanses, or magic bullets. “
I think this quote underscores the importance of eating whole, fresh, nutrient-dense food as fundamental to health (a concept that comes with an abundance of supporting data) and there’s no shortcut around that.
When I think of food as medicine I think it’s most important to understand:
- What you are eating
- How to prepare it (to preserve and/or maximize nutrients)
- The role food plays in your health (individualizing nutrition)
- How food production impacts the environment and human health (understanding if the food you consume contains toxins, chemicals, pesticides, heavy metals, etc.)
- The value of nutrient-dense foods (including prevention and healthcare cost avoidance)
In functional medicine, the focus is on going “upstream.” This cartoon illustrates it perfectly: often we are mopping up the floor (treating the symptoms) without looking upstream to notice that the sink is still running (the root cause(s) of the problem).
Our primary objective with Farmacy at the Chef’s Garden is to go upstream, way upstream. We as the farmers want to be part of your healthcare team, helping you to prevent illness before it occurs, to live each day to its fullest feeling healthy and full of energy.
A few of the many benefits to using food as medicine with a focus on nutrient-dense vegetables are:
- Improving hormone balance
- Improving blood sugar balance (and insulin)
- Lower cholesterol
- Lower blood pressure
- Improving digestion
- Improving the quality and diversity of the gut bacteria (aka microbiome)
- Improving physical and mental health
- Reducing the risk for cancer
- Reducing the risk for cardiovascular disease
Farmer Lee Jones says that “everyone thinks a carrot is a carrot is a carrot, but that’s the furthest thing from the truth. Flavorful vegetables start with the soil.” I would add to this nutrient density starts with the soil, too—and that you can taste the difference!
When you compare dirt to the soil, you can see, smell, and feel the difference. Soil is alive with microbes that support the health of the plant by making nutrients more available and even protecting the roots of the plant from disease.
Healthy soil grows healthy plants; healthy plants make healthy people!
Here are a few of the many ways we have chosen to do things differently:
- Our vegetables are harvested at the peak ripeness with delicious flavor and texture!
- We grow on average 600-800 different varieties of vegetables yearly, so there’s no getting bored here! Select the curated box that best fits your family's needs.
- We deliver right to your door. No grocery store close by? No problem.
- Save time because there’s no need to run out with your beautiful veggies delivered straight from the farm to your doorstep!
- Although our nutrient-dense vegetables may cost more than others, they also provide more vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, so you receive more benefits in the food you eat.
- We provide recipes and cooking tips to help build your confidence in the kitchen, avoid the same old boring meals, and to optimize the nutrients in the meals you cook.
How, what, and with whom we eat has a significant impact on how we feel and how our body functions. Health by definition is not just the absence of disease but rather is physical, mental, and social well-being—something that looks and feels different to each person.
It's not just what we eat but how we eat that matters. In order to receive the most nourishment and to absorb the beneficial nutrients and phytochemicals, it is important to slow down, relax, and breathe. This activates all of your senses as you enjoy a meal. Making these simple changes to how you eat can significantly improve your digestion and allow your body to use the food you are eating as medicine.
You can build a box of fresh vegetables for your own food as medicine, choosing from vegetables within the curations we’ve created for specific conditions.