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What Is “Food as Medicine”?

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Article written by Barbara Ruhs, MS, RDN

An avid avocado-eater and guacamole-lover, Barb is the Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist for Avocados From Mexico and former sports nutritionist for Harvard University. Her philosophy on food is simple: Enjoy what you eat, prepare food with love, and add avocados to everything!

December 16, 2022

There’s a health movement getting a lot of press right now: food as medicine. The White House recently hosted its first nutrition conference in over 50 years, where there was an entire section dedicated to the topic. Don’t be fooled, though. This isn’t just a trend or a buzzword — it’s the foundation of a dietitian’s profession! Nutritionists, like myself, love this philosophy because it empowers people to take the driver’s seat to impact their health through diet.

 

A simple shift in perspective — to see food as medicine — can positively impact your diet, overall well-being, and even your life span. Here’s what you need to know to adopt this thinking.

 

What Is Food as Medicine?

Food as medicine is an affirmation that food plays a critical role in sustaining health and preventing disease. It’s the belief that food is also a part of therapy for those with health conditions.

 

We’re all starting out with a clean slate, with propensities toward certain conditions, given our genetics. How you eat and your environment influence how your genes change over time. Diet is a big factor. Most people are unaware that what we put in our mouths is foundational to our well-being. Only 1 in 10 Americans eat enough fruits and vegetables, which can have profound effects on our health. How you eat significantly impacts your cancer risk and heart and brain function.

 

For those with existing conditions, food as medicine is not a replacement for medical treatment prescribed by a doctor, but it absolutely belongs in your treatment plan. Eating enough fruits and vegetables provides your body with the nutrients it needs to perform at its best, which is especially key when it’s struggling.

 

Why Is Food as Medicine Getting So Much Press?

Food as medicine is resonating today because people are more sensitized to their health. The COVID-19 pandemic reset many people’s perspectives. People are prioritizing their work-life balance and general well-being while also re-discovering the joy and health benefits of preparing more meals at home. In the long run, making the investment in healthier food choices and eating more at home is worth it if it can reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes or other costly chronic illness that are related to poor dietary choices.

 

10 Heart-Healthy Avocado Quick Fixes

Check out these 10 recipes that meet the American Heart Association’s criteria for the Heart-Check Food Certification Program. They fit the AHA certification requirements for calories, sodium, saturated fat, added sugars, trans fat, and omega-3 fatty acids. And, importantly, they’re scrumptious.

 

What Role Do Avocados Play in Food as Medicine?

Avocados are a nutrient-dense, natural source of so much goodness. You’ve got antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, and good fats, all of which support your body’s well-being.

 

Vegetables and fruits, like avocado, are rich sources of antioxidants. Antioxidants — such as vitamins C, E, and lutein — help protect cells from damage caused by free radicals. One serving of avocado, or one-third of a medium avocado, contains 4% of the daily value (DV) for vitamin C, 6% of the DV for vitamin E, and 136 micrograms of lutein per serving.

 

Likewise, avocados are a unique and healthy fruit because they contain unsaturated fat — and can act as a nutrient booster by helping increase the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients like vitamins A, D, K, and E. Avocados contain 6 grams of naturally good fat per one-third of a medium avocado. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends consuming good fats, like those found in avocados, as part of healthy eating patterns.

 

Avocados are the only fruit with good fats and are considered a heart-healthy fruit. That’s because they are low in saturated fat and cholesterol, are sodium free, and contain good fats, which offer benefits to the body without raising LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. In fact, monounsaturated fat can help reduce bad cholesterol levels in your blood, which can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. One-third of a medium avocado contains 5 grams of monosaturated fat.

 

In a clinical trial of 11 participants, researchers investigated the effects adding half an avocado to a burger patty has on inflammation and vascular health. The Avocado Nutrition Center sponsored the study, and although more research is needed to generalize the results to larger, more diverse populations, the findings support the growing body of evidence showing avocados are a heart-healthy fruit.

 

The Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet incorporates sources of good fat, with a foundation of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, seafood, nuts, and potatoes. The types of food eaten on this diet help prevent heart attacks and strokes while reducing the risk of Type 2 diabetes.

 

Most adults don’t get enough fiber — more than 90% of women and 97% of men! Avocados are a good source of fiber. Diets rich in healthy foods containing fiber, such as vegetables and fruits (including avocado), may reduce the risk of heart disease, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes. Thirty-five percent of the fiber in avocado is soluble, which prevents your digestive tract from absorbing cholesterol and reduces the risk of heart disease.

 

How Do Avocados Support Your Body When You Have Existing Conditions?

Let’s say you’re fighting cancer. Chemo makes it difficult to eat a lot, so you need nutrient-dense foods to get more goodness in per bite and feel full. It is recommended that 85% of the food you eat should be nutrient dense. One-third of a medium avocado (one serving) has 80 calories and contributes nearly 20 vitamins and minerals, making it a healthy, nutrient-dense choice.

 

On the other hand, imagine you’re managing diabetes. Healthy eating patterns associated with improved Type 2 diabetes outcomes include plenty of fruits and vegetables and unsaturated fats, like those found in avocado. Also, unlike other fruits, avocado contains zero grams of naturally occurring sugar per serving and does not affect the glycemic response. And, again, one serving of avocado (one-third of a medium avocado) is a good source of fiber, which slows the absorption of sugar in the bloodstream. Avocados make for a satisfying snack because they’re a good source of fiber, offer a nutrient-dense source of good fats, all of which helps you feel satisfied.

 

 

One serving of avocado is one-third of a medium avocado — but don’t throw out the other two-thirds! Spritz lemon juice over the flesh, and save the remainder in plastic wrap to get the most of your grocery budget.

 

I Want to Start Using Food as Medicine. How Do I See a Dietitian for Free?

Most people have no idea there are tons of free resources available to them. Look up your local supermarket’s website and search for dietitian consultations. Some offer virtual services. Others offer to have a dietitian walk with you through the store as you shop to answer your questions. You get to go home with the peace of mind you purchased dietitian-approved foods.

 

A Better Future for American Nutrition

The science of nutrition continues to evolve, and I’m thrilled to see that the focus on living a healthy life is broadening. Food as medicine is part of a broader movement that encourages us to see our lifestyle as a big factor in our overall health, along with exercise, relaxation, and socialization.

 

Start eating more fruits and vegetables today. Here is Barb’s advice on how to eat more plants (and keep meals delicious!).

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