Hippocrates, widely considered the ‘father of medicine’, supposedly once said: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
Of course, that was in Ancient Greece, and the intention of his alleged words have long been hotly debated by his medical descendants. The world has also seen the invention of penicillin, vaccinations and several iPhone generations since Hippocrates walked the earth. However, as modern wellness continues to seek from the vaults of ancient wisdom, it seems we have come full circle, with the phrase “food is medicine” gaining both popularity and notoriety in recent years.
Long espoused by many in the burgeoning alternative medicine and wellness industries—the latter of which is valued at USD $4.5 trillion and considered one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing markets—it’s a phrase that has captivated many with its poetic simplicity and marketable allure.
It’s been further propagated by celebrities and influencers, with even Justin Bieber using a variation of the phrase to encourage his followers to consider whether their diets are the source of their anxiety or depression, a polarising move that was met with both criticism and praise.
And while it’s tempting to reduce health advice to an Instagrammable platitude, the notion of food as a generic cure-all for everything, from cancer to anxiety and depression—during one of the world’s worst pandemics, no less—is neither to be taken at face value, nor is it without potentially negative consequences.
“The concept of nourishing your body with good food is a positive message, but a blanket statement like this can be dangerous on multiple levels,” Dr. Raesha Jaffer, a Brisbane-based general practitioner, told ELLE.
“It undermines the complexity of any medical issue. Medical issues are influenced by multiple factors: genetics, hormones, environmental exposure and hence, treatment is often also multifactorial in that regard.”
Despite how well-intended the phrase often is, its outcome can be harmful, and potentially fatal, Dr. Jaffer emphasised.
“Overly simplified statements like this can result in people ceasing their medication when it is actually needed. For example, imagine someone with epilepsy stops taking their medication and instead changes their diet, only to be behind the wheel and experience a seizure—that can be fatal.”
“Similarly, it can cause delays in therapy. We see this a lot in cancer patients, where they change diets in the hope it cures it and in that time, their cancer has significantly progressed.”
But how does it translate in the realm of mental health, an area that is already rife with confusion and stigma due to its ‘invisible’ nature? According to Dr. Joshua Wohlrich, the U.K.-based surgeon who directly challenged Bieber’s ‘food is medicine’ post, it could increase a sense of shame for those who do take medication.
“The intention behind this post is good, but unfortunately the potential outcome is quite harmful. Food is many, many things but it’s not medicine. That’s not to say it isn’t important—it provides us with nutrition and energy to thrive, but it has its limitations,” he wrote in a comment that has since garnered over 9,000 likes.
“Anxiety and depression is very rarely as a result of food intake. Mental health is complex and boiling is down to the privilege of food choices is incorrect and stigmatising for those who struggle with it on a daily basis.
“For any of you who read this and felt a sense of guilt that if only you changed your food you wouldn’t struggle with mental health… please know that’s not accurate. You are doing a fantastic job—do not compare yourself to a celebrity with all the capacity for change and privilege in the world.”
However, is it fair to say it’s all snake oil? After all, outside consulting a professional, most health advice geared towards improving our general well-being typically boils down to: eat well, sleep well, drink water, meditate and, more often than not, do yoga. Despite the oversimplification of ‘food is medicine’, it seems there is some truth in food being a tool for aiding our mental health, and the science supports it.
While food is seldom the sole reason for a mental health problem, there is a growing body of research around what scientists call the ‘microbiome–gut–brain axis’, or the shortened ‘gut-brain axis’, with studies showing that diversity in gut bacteria, typically acquired through a varied plant-based diet, may help alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression.
“What you do and don’t eat directly and indirectly can impact mood and mental health,” Jess Spendlove, an Accredited Practising Dietitian and co-founder of Health & Performance Collective, told ELLE.
“The American Gut Project was the largest study of its kind looking into how diet and lifestyle can affect the human microbiome (the ecosystem of bacteria in the gut). The study showed that the number of different plant types a person consumes plays a role in the diversity of their gut microbiome. Those who ate 30+ different plant foods per week had gut microbiomes that were more diverse than those who ate 10 or less.
“These people with the higher diversity also had fewer antibiotic resistance genes in their gut microbiomes. And interestingly, those in the study with mental health disorders were more likely to have low diversity in their gut microbiome. Certain types of bacteria may be more common in people with depression than those without.”
“Some even refer to the gut as the ‘second brain’ due to the constant communication from the gut to the brain,” said Chloe McLeod, an Accredited Practising Dietitian and co-founder of Health & Performance Collective.
“The bacteria in the gut microbiome are thought to be a key influencer of this communication, so looking after gut health is a key dietary strategy to look after our overall health, in particular brain health and mental health. This is where the goal of consuming 30 plant-based foods stems from.”
The importance of good diet is undeniable, that much is clear. For those dealing with certain health conditions that require a change in diet, such as Coeliac’s Disease, it really can be the difference between leading a normal life or living in pain. At the same time, it seems unfortunately ironic that adopting a puritanical view of food as means to heal a health concern can result in an obsession that becomes, well, unhealthy.
Diane “V” Capaldi, an American motivational speaker, chef and psychologist formerly known as “Paleo Boss Lady” in wellness circles, knows firsthand what can happen when the thing that is supposed to be healing you becomes harmful.
She first turned to food to heal her multiple sclerosis after stumbling across “The Wahls Protocol”, which is essentially a version of the Paleo diet created by Dr. Terry Wahls, a functional medicine doctor and clinical professor who, after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, began studying food and vitamins.