What you choose to eat has profound effects on your overall health.
Research shows that dietary habits influence disease risk. While certain foods may trigger chronic health conditions, others offer strong medicinal and protective qualities.
Thus, many people argue that food is medicine.
Yet, diet alone cannot and should not replace medicine in all circumstances. Although many illnesses can be prevented, treated, or even cured by dietary and lifestyle changes, many others cannot.
This article explains the medicinal effects of food, including which foods should and shouldn't be used for healing.
Many nutrients in food promote health and protect your body from disease.
Eating whole, nutritious foods is important because their unique substances work synergistically to create an effect that can't be replicated by taking a supplement.
Vitamins and Minerals
Although your body only needs small amounts of vitamins and minerals, they're vital for your health.
However, Western diets — high in processed foods and low in whole foods like fresh produce — are typically deficient in vitamins and minerals. Such deficiencies can substantially increase your risk of disease.
For example, insufficient intakes of vitamin C, vitamin D, and folate may harm your heart, cause immune dysfunction, and increase your risk of certain cancers, respectively.
Beneficial Plant Compounds
Nutritious foods, including vegetables, fruits, beans, and grains, boast numerous beneficial compounds, such as antioxidants.
Antioxidants protect cells from damage that may otherwise lead to disease.
In fact, studies demonstrate that people whose diets are rich in polyphenol antioxidants have lower rates of depression, diabetes, dementia, and heart disease.
Fiber is an essential part of a healthy diet. It not only promotes proper digestion and elimination but also feeds the beneficial bacteria in your gut.
Thus, high-fiber foods like vegetables, beans, grains, and fruits help protect against disease, decrease inflammation, and boost your immune system.
On the other hand, low-fiber diets are associated with an increased risk of illnesses, including colon cancer and stroke.
Protein and Healthy Fats
The protein and fat in whole, nutritious foods play various critical roles in your body.
Amino acids — the building blocks of protein — aid immune function, muscle synthesis, metabolism, and growth, while fats provide fuel and help absorb nutrients.
Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in foods like fatty fish, help regulate inflammation and are linked to improved heart and immune health.
Whole, nutritious foods boast vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, protein, and fat, all of which promote health and are key to optimal bodily function.
Notably, nutritious foods may decrease your risk of disease — while the opposite is true for highly processed foods.
Unhealthy Food Choices Can Increase Disease Risk
Unhealthy diets high in sugary drinks, fast food, and refined grains are a main contributor to conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
These processed foods harm your gut bacteria and promote insulin resistance, chronic inflammation, and overall disease risk.
A study in over 100,000 people found that every 10% increase in ultra-processed food intake resulted in a 12% increase in cancer risk.
Additionally, a study on worldwide mortality and disease showed that in 2017, 11 million deaths and 255 million disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) were likely due to poor diet.
DALYs measure the burden of disease, with one unit representing the loss of one year of full health.
Nutritious Diets Protect Against Disease
On the other hand, research indicates that diets abundant in plant foods and low in processed products strengthen your health.
For instance, the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in healthy fats, whole grains, and vegetables, is linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, neurodegenerative conditions, diabetes, certain cancers, and obesity.
Other eating patterns shown to safeguard against disease include plant-based, whole-food-based, and paleo diets.
In fact, some diets may reverse certain conditions.
For example, plant-based diets have been found to reverse coronary artery disease while very-low-carb lifestyles may help eliminate type 2 diabetes in some people.
What's more, nutritious eating patterns like the Mediterranean diet are tied to better self-reported quality of life and lower rates of depression than typical Western diets — and may even boost your longevity.
Such findings prove that robust diets indeed function as preventative medicine.
Following a healthy diet can increase longevity, protect against disease, and improve your overall quality of life.
While some dietary choices can either prevent or increase your disease risk, not all diseases can be prevented or treated through diet alone.
Many Other Factors Affect Your Health and Disease Risk
Disease risk is quite complex. Although a poor diet can cause or contribute to illnesses, many other factors need to be considered.
Genetics, stress, pollution, age, infections, occupational hazards, and lifestyle choices — such as lack of exercise, smoking, and alcohol use — also have an effect.
Food cannot compensate for poor lifestyle choices, genetic disposition, or other factors related to disease development.
Food Should Not Be Used as a Replacement for Medicine
Though shifting to a healthier dietary pattern can indeed prevent disease, it's critical to understand that food cannot and should not replace pharmaceutical drugs.
Medicine was developed to save lives and treat diseases. While it may be overprescribed or used as an easy fix for dietary and lifestyle problems, it's oftentimes invaluable.
As healing does not hinge solely on diet or lifestyle, choosing to forgo a potentially life-saving medical treatment to focus on diet alone can be dangerous or even fatal.
Beware of False Advertising
While scientific evidence shows that food can aid various health conditions, anecdotal claims of curing or treating diseases through extreme dieting, supplements, or other methods are often false.
For example, diets advertised to cure cancer or other serious conditions are typically not backed by research and often prohibitively expensive.
Eschewing conventional treatments like chemotherapy for alternative, unproven diets can worsen diseases or lead to death.
Although many foods have strong disease-fighting benefits, diet should not be considered a replacement for conventional medicine.
Transitioning to a diet based on whole foods can improve your health in countless ways. Foods that offer particularly powerful benefits include:
Berries. Numerous studies have found that nutrients and plant compounds in berries combat disease. In fact, diets rich in berries may protect against chronic conditions, including certain cancers.
Cruciferous vegetables. Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and kale contain a wide array of antioxidants. High intake of these vegetables may decrease your risk of heart disease and promote longevity.
Fatty fish. Salmon, sardines, and other fatty fish fight inflammation due to their high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which also protect against heart disease.
Mushrooms. Compounds in mushrooms, types of which include maitake and reishi, have been shown to boost your immune system, heart, and brain.
Spices. Turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, and other spices are packed with beneficial plant compounds. For example, studies note that turmeric helps treat arthritis and metabolic syndrome.
Herbs. Herbs like parsley, oregano, rosemary, and sage not only provide natural flavor to dishes but also boast many health-promoting compounds.
Green tea. Green tea has been thoroughly researched for its impressive benefits, which may include reduced inflammation and lower disease risk.
Nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil, honey, seaweed, and fermented foods are just a few of the many other foods studied for their medicinal properties Simply transitioning to a diet rich in whole foods like fruits and vegetables is the simplest way to reap the medicinal benefits of food.
Berries, cruciferous vegetables, fatty fish, and mushrooms are just a selection of the foods that offer powerful medicinal properties.
The Bottom Line
Food not only provides energy but may also act as medicine.
A nutrient-dense diet of whole foods has been shown to prevent and even treat or reverse many chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease.
Keep in mind that you should not rely on food to replace traditional medicine.
Healthy eating also involves preparing food to preserve nutrients and prevent disease, as well as paying attention to food production issues. When preparing food, aim to preserve the nutrient value of the food and utilize healthy fats, reasonable portions, and whole foods.
A typical Western diet is high in excess sugars, salts and fats; and it is often low in heart-healthy nutrients -- a scenario which can pack on the pounds, heighten inflammation and increase heart-disease risk. A highly sugared diet does little to help a cold and may exacerbate bacterial infections that can follow, including sinusitis. Cook for healthy healing by shifting your focus from highly processed convenience foods to plant-based foods and healthier cooking techniques.
How Cooking Affects the Nutrient Content of Foods
Eating nutritious foods can improve your health and energy levels. Surprisingly, the way you cook your food has a major effect on the amount of nutrients in it.
Cooking food improves digestion and increases absorption of many nutrients. For example, protein in cooked eggs is 180% more digestible than in raw eggs. However, several key nutrients are reduced with some cooking methods. The following nutrients are often reduced during cooking:
Water-soluble vitamins: Vitamin C and the B vitamins — thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), folic acid (B7) and cobalamin (B8).
Fat-soluble vitamins: Vitamins A, D, E and K.
Minerals: Primarily potassium, magnesium, sodium and calcium.
Boiling, Simmering and Poaching
Boiling, simmering and poaching are similar methods of water-based cooking. These techniques differ by water temperature:
Poaching: Less than 180°F/82°C.
Vegetables are generally a great source of vitamin C, but a large amount of it is lost when cooked in water. In fact, boiling reduces vitamin C more than any other cooking method. Broccoli, spinach and lettuce may lose up to 50% or more of their vitamin C when boiled. Because vitamin C is water-soluble and sensitive to heat, it can leach out of vegetables when they're immersed in hot water.
B vitamins are similarly heat sensitive. Up to 60% of thiamin, niacin and other B vitamins may be lost when meat is simmered and its juices run off. However, when the liquid containing these juices is consumed, 100% of the minerals and 70–90% of B vitamins are retained. On the other hand, boiling fish was shown to preserve omega-3 fatty acid content significantly more than frying or microwaving.
While water-based cooking methods cause the greatest losses of water-soluble vitamins, they have very little effect on omega-3 fats.
Grilling and Broiling
Grilling and broiling are similar methods of cooking with dry heat. When grilling, the heat source comes from below, but when broiling, it comes from above. Grilling is one of the most popular cooking methods because of the great flavor it gives food. However, up to 40% of B vitamins and minerals may be lost during grilling or broiling when the nutrient-rich juice drips from the meat.
There are also concerns about polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are potentially cancer-causing substances that form when meat is grilled and fat drips onto a hot surface. Luckily, researchers have found that PAHs can be decreased by 41–89% if drippings are removed and smoke is minimized.
Grilling and broiling provide great flavor but also reduce B vitamins. Grilling generates potentially cancer-causing substances.
Microwaving is an easy, convenient and safe method of cooking. Short cooking times and reduced exposure to heat preserve the nutrients in microwave food. Studies have found that microwaving is the best method for retaining the antioxidant activity in garlic and mushrooms. About 20–30% of vitamin C in green vegetables is lost during microwaving, which is less than most cooking methods.
Microwaving is a safe cooking method that preserves most nutrients due to short cooking times.
Roasting and Baking
Roasting and baking refer to cooking food in an oven with dry heat. Although these terms are somewhat interchangeable, the term "roasting" is typically used for meat while "baking" is used for bread, muffins, cake and similar foods. Most vitamin losses are minimal with this cooking method, including vitamin C. However, due to long cooking times at high temperatures, B vitamins in roasted meat may decline by as much as 40%.
Roasting or baking does not have a significant effect on most vitamins and minerals, with the exception of B vitamins.
Sautéing and Stir-Frying
With sautéing and stir-frying, food is cooked in a saucepan over medium to high heat in a small amount of oil or butter. These techniques are very similar, but with stir-frying the food is stirred often, the temperature is higher and the cooking time is shorter. In general, this is a healthy way to prepare food.
Cooking for a short time without water prevents loss of B vitamins, and the addition of fat improves the absorption of plant compounds and antioxidants. One study found that absorption of beta-carotene was 6.5 times greater in stir-fried carrots than in raw.
In another study, blood lycopene levels increased 80% more when people consumed tomatoes sautéed in olive oil rather than without. On the other hand, stir-frying has been shown to significantly reduce the amount of vitamin C in broccoli and red cabbage.
Sautéing and stir-frying improve the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and some plant compounds, but they decrease the amount of vitamin C in vegetables.
Frying involves cooking food in a large amount of fat, usually oil, at a high temperature. The food is often coated with batter or bread crumbs. It's a popular way of preparing food because the skin or coating maintains a seal, which ensures that the inside remains moist and cooks evenly. The fat used for frying also makes the food taste very good.
However, not all foods are appropriate for frying. Fatty fish are the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which have many health benefits. These fats are very delicate and prone to damage at high temperatures. Frying tuna has been shown to degrade its omega-3 content by up to 70–85% while baking caused only minimal losses.
In contrast, frying preserves vitamin C and B vitamins, and it may also increase the amount of fiber in potatoes by converting their starch into resistant starch. When oil is heated to a high temperature for a long period of time, toxic substances called aldehydes are formed. Aldehydes have been linked to an increased risk of cancer and other diseases. The type of oil, temperature and length of cooking time affect the amounts of aldehydes produced. Reheating oil also increases aldehyde formation. If you're going to fry food, don't overcook it, and use one of the healthiest oils for frying.
Frying makes food taste delicious, and it can provide some benefits when healthy oils are used. It's best to avoid frying fatty fish and minimize frying time for other foods.
Steaming is one of the best cooking methods for preserving nutrients, including water-soluble vitamins that are sensitive to heat and water. Researchers have found that steaming broccoli, spinach and lettuce reduces their vitamin C content by only 9–15%.
The downside is that steamed vegetables may taste bland. However, this is easy to remedy by adding some seasoning and oil or butter after cooking. Try this easy recipe for steamed broccoli with suggested additions to improve the flavor.
Steaming is one of the best cooking methods for preserving nutrients, including water-soluble vitamins.
Raw food diets have gained tons of attention recently, and for good reason. Many studies suggest there are of benefits of incorporating more raw foods into the diet: Studies have shown eating the rainbow consistently reduces the risk of cancer, but the jury’s out on whether raw or cooked is really best overall. On the one hand, since the diet is mostly plant-based, you end up eating more vitamins, minerals, and fiber, with no added sugars or fats from cooking. But while some raw items might be super-healthy, studies have found that cooking can actually amplify some nutrients, like lycopene in tomatoes and antioxidants in carotenoids such as carrots, spinach, sweet potatoes, and peppers.
Use as little water as possible for poaching or boiling.
Consume the liquid left in the pan after cooking vegetables.
Add back juices from meat that drips into the pan.
Don't peel vegetables until after cooking them. Better yet, don't peel at all to maximize fiber and nutrient density.
Cook vegetables in smaller amounts of water to reduce loss of vitamin C and B vitamins.
Try to finish cooked vegetables within a day or two, as vitamin C content may continue to decline when the cooked food is exposed to air.
Cut food after rather than before cooking, if possible. When food is cooked whole, less of it is exposed to heat and water.
Cook vegetables for only a few minutes whenever possible.
When cooking meat, poultry and fish, use the shortest cooking time needed for safe consumption.
Don't use baking soda when cooking vegetables. Although it helps maintain color, vitamin C will be lost in the alkaline environment produced by baking soda.
There are many ways to preserve the nutrient content in foods without sacrificing taste or other qualities. It's important to select the right cooking method to maximize the nutritional quality of your meal. However, there is no perfect method of cooking that retains all nutrients. In general, cooking for shorter periods at lower temperatures with minimal water will produce the best results. Don't let the nutrients in your food go down the drain.
Food borne illnesses don't just come from restaurants. In fact, they usually come from bad food preparation, serving, and storage at home. Follow the guidelines below to keep your food as safe as possible:
Close up of a chef's hands preparing leafy greens.
Wash hands and surfaces often using hot, soapy water. Wash your hands before and after you handle food or utensils, especially raw meat, poultry, fish, or eggs.
Wash all fruits and vegetables before eating.
Separate raw, cooked, and ready-to-eat foods. Keep raw meat, poultry, fish, or eggs away from other foods to prevent cross-contamination. If possible, use separate cutting boards for these foods. If not, be sure to wash cutting boards carefully with soap between uses.
Cook foods to a safe temperature using a food thermometer. Uncooked or undercooked animal products can be unsafe.
Keep hot foods hot (above 140 degrees) and cold foods cold (below 40 degrees) to prevent bacteria growth. Refrigerate foods within two hours of purchase or preparation (one hour if the temperature is higher than 90 degrees).
When in doubt, throw it out. If you are not sure that food has been prepared, served, or stored properly, throw it out. If food has been left out for more than two hours, throw it out. Eat cooked leftovers within four days.
When to buy organic (and when it's safe not to)
The dirty dozen
Some produce items have heavier pesticide residue than others. Be sure to only buy organically grown versions of the following fruits and vegetables:
Apples, Celery, Cherry tomatoes, Cucumbers, Grapes, Hot peppers, Imported nectarines, Peaches, Potatoes, Strawberries, Spinach, Sweet bell peppers.
The clean 15
These foods have low pesticide residue, making it safe to purchase non-organic versions of them:
Onions, Sweet corn, Pineapples, Avocado, Cabbage, Sweet peas, Asparagus, Mangoes, Eggplant, Kiwi, Cantaloupe (domestic), Sweet potatoes, Grapefruit, Papayas, Mushrooms.
Maintaining a healthy diet can be challenging enough, but no matter which foods you choose, your cookware could still be doing you harm – it may even be poisoning you.
Here are five common cookware materials that could be making your food toxic.
Using plastic spoons and spatulas at high temperatures can cause them to melt. Even if plastic utensils appear intact, higher heat can release toxins from the plastic into your food, which will not only affect the taste of your meal, but also have a negative impact on your health. Get yourself some wooden spoons instead.
When it comes to cutting boards, plastic may be good for your knives, but once they become rough and scraped they harbor dangerous bacteria – no matter how well you wash them. Again, wooden cutting boards are preferable, especially hardwood ones that are more resistant to cuts and scratches. When they are well-looked after, wooden chopping boards are a much healthier option.
You may have heard the old ‘BPA’ argument. BPA refers to a chemical called Bisphenol A which is often found in plastics, and has been linked to brain damage and other serious health issues. It’s better to save your glass jars and use glass containers to store food rather than plastic ones; or at least containers marked ‘BPA-free’.
Aluminum pots and pans are usually inexpensive and, therefore, quite common in many kitchens. But the money you save could cost you dearly. Aluminum exposure has been linked to dementia, autism and other diseases. Non-anodized, aluminum cookware is prone to leaking harmful metal into highly acidic or basic foods. So, pairing aluminum cookware with foods such as tomatoes or anything that contains baking soda can be doing you serious harm.
Copper is a favorite for its superior conductive properties, so it’s another common cookware metal. As with aluminum, copper can leach into food during cooking and too much copper in your system can lead to serious health problems.
Scratched stainless steel
Typically considered the best metal for cookware and kitchen surfaces, once stainless steel becomes scratched it leaches harmful metals such as iron, chromium and nickel into your food.
Teflon may be easy to clean, but it contains a high amount of highly toxic chemicals, some of which are carcinogenic. And it doesn’t have to leach into your food to do you harm. The fumes from cooking with Teflon have been known to kill pet birds, so imagine what it could be doing to you. Teflon is quite possibly the most harmful cookware material in your kitchen.
If you find yourself in need of some healthy cooking and baking needs, it’s time to add any of the following to your holiday wish list.
Stainless steel cookware often has an inner core of copper or aluminum, which are excellent conductors of heat. Because these undesirable minerals are sandwiched between stainless steel, you are essentially safe from toxins.
Remember the cast iron pans your grandmother had? They were, and still are, tops when it comes to healthy cooking. Although cast iron cookware can leach iron into your food (especially unglazed cast iron), the additional mineral boost can be a good thing, unless you are at risk of iron overload.
Glassware, such as Pyrex and similar products, are non-toxic and durable. Although most glass products cannot be used on a stovetop, they are fantastic for baking.
Ceramic and Enamel
Ceramic cookware and bakeware have been used since ancient times, and they can provide even heating and easy cleanup. However, that doesn’t mean all of them are safe. Concerns about using ceramic and enamel products are associated with substances such as cadmium or lead used during the production, glazing, and decorating processes. Always check with the manufacturer.
Safe stoneware cookware may be more challenging to find, but it can be well worth the effort. Of utmost importance is to choose stoneware from a reliable company. You can use stoneware on your stovetop and in your oven, and many pieces are attractive enough to use for serving as well. High-quality stoneware also does not absorb odors from foods.
Clay Pot Cookware
Using all-natural clay pot cookware is like taking a step back in time and across many borders, as it is an ancient and global way of cooking that has withstood the passage of time. Clay pot cooking is safe (toxin-free) and environmentally friendly; there is no lead or other contaminants, just pure clay.
The healthiest cookware and bakeware seem to be stainless steel, cast iron, stoneware, clay, and glass, with a smaller number of ceramic and enamel. If this review has caused you to take stock of your pots and pans and you realize you need to make some changes, don’t panic! Replace the most offensive ones first, and then one at a time.