I recently read an article on the use of food as medicine in cancer patients … it was complicated and left me feeling confused, when I had not been previously! And it got me to thinking … is there a simple way to view the purpose of food, as something that we use to satisfy the senses, no matter what the cost, or something that we understand is to nourish the whole body.
As an eye specialist, I am permitted to recommend food for patients with macular degeneration … the food that is good for the eyes – oily fish, dark green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds in moderation – is, not surprisingly, the food that is good for all of us, seeing as the eyes are part of the whole body.
I find it ironic that our profession has become so divorced from the use of food as medicine that not only do most of us not practise it ourselves, we dare not prescribe it for our patients, especially after the example that was made of Dr Gary Fettke, who recommended to his diabetic patients that they eat less sugar and other high GI carbohydrates after their first amputation surgery, if they did not want to have to their other foot cut off in time. It was claimed that as a doctor he did not have the expertise or the right to advise his patients about their diet. The decision to silence him was eventually reversed, but the example had been made to deter the rest of us from speaking out, nonetheless.
But food is medicine, and we all know it.
So as a doctor, who is also a human being with a human body, I feel I have every right to say what does and does not feel good in my body and what does and does not support my health. And I am willing to share this with my patients, if asked, because they have been witness to my living example over the years (“I have watched you lose all this weight and keep it off … what have you been doing, doc?”), and with anyone else who is interested to know. Not in an evangelical way, for I know only too well from personal experience that we cannot be told what to do and if someone ever attempted to tell me to do anything, I would dig my heels in and do the complete opposite! We cannot be told, but we can be inspired by one who is living what they say is true.
I was once a person who used to eat and drink absolutely everything (except offal), in quite large quantities. I ate because I loved food, not because I was hungry. I ate because I loved the sight, smell, taste, texture and even the sound of food – it was an all-round sensory experience. I ate more than my body needed, because the sensations were so enjoyable, and eating was my primary pleasure, my reward for all that work at lunchtime and at the end of the day and the end of the week and the end of the year and for any other reason I could think of!
I drank coffee because I loved the smell of it, but also because I needed it to stay awake during the day. But the coffee dropped my blood sugar, so I needed to eat biscuits or a piece of cake with it. I drank alcohol because I thought I loved the taste of it, but it was really because I needed it to give me permission to stop – which otherwise as a professional woman who was running my own business and raising two small children I found very difficult to do – and because if I did not drink alcohol I could not sleep at night from all the coffee I had drunk during the day. But the alcohol gave me a sugar hit, so I also had to eat foods that dulled me to settle me to sleep (or more usually, into an exhausted coma). All of this had the all-too-predictable result of making me rather overweight and heading towards diabetes and more than a little depressed. But food (especially cake) was my religion, my primary relationship in life, so what was I to do?
In the last fifteen years I have slowly changed my diet to one that is primarily designed to nourish my body, so I can do my job, which is to care for myself deeply so I can care for people, whom I love even more than food. I still really love food, so my husband and I make food that also delights our senses, and is tasty as, but that is not its primary purpose.
I (very gradually) cut down, then stopped drinking alcohol and coffee, reduced refined carbohydrates, cut out gluten, which was making me feel dull, bloated and sleepy, removed dairy, which gave me a blocked or runny nose and a bellyache, and started eating meat again (I had been vegetarian for many years, but if you cut out gluten and dairy and don’t like tofu, there is not a lot left to eat!). Sugar was and still is the most challenging food for me to not eat – it makes me racy and irritable and affects my heart and my relationship with my husband, but I have come to understand that it is the most addictive substance of all, at least for me.
To make all these changes, I also had to change my relationship with sleep, as I was using food to keep me going, because I was exhausted. I started going to bed earlier, and winding down in the evenings in preparation for sleep, rather than winding myself up with food, drink and entertainment.
I made the changes, not from a belief or ideal that I should and certainly not because I wanted to, for I thought I loved eating and drinking all of those things, but because I became willing to listen to my body and the messages it was sending me, which were becoming increasingly loud and clear. Of course we can choose to override them or dull these messages, or we can listen to and honour them and the body they come from.
As I have made these gradual changes, I now find that my diet is becoming even more refined. If I eat too much, even if it is all healthy and nourishing food, I still feel bloated after eating, and tired and sluggish the next day. I am learning to leave more space in my belly, rather than stuffing it as full as I can, and I am learning to leave more space between meals now, to allow my body to digest what I have already fed it, before giving it some more.
I was intrigued that the article I read, referred to not eating between 7pm and 7 am as fasting … goodness me, isn’t that just not eating between dinner and breakfast?! Are we so used to eating and drinking all the time now, that just not eating between meals is referred to as fasting?
We have made eating food a complexity and called it all manner of dietary names but really, the truth is simple … there is no one-size-fits-all diet for everyone, as we are all unique, and our dietary needs can change from time to time, but one thing is constant … if we honour our body and what we feel before, during and after we eat, and are willing to be absolutely honest about that, we will allow ourselves to feel what works for us and what does not, by observing and learning from our greatest teacher, our own body.
This article was first published on To Medicine with Love