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  • Ted Hall, L.Ac.

Food is Medicine

How is it that this one basic thing we all need to do everyday has evolved to become a significant source poor health? How can we understand and ultimately refine our relationship with food so that we use it to create health and happiness in our lives? It starts with love.

Food, how I love thee

Food is one of my favorite things. I don’t know exactly what one needs to do to qualify as a “foodie” but I feel like I might be one of those. I think about food a lot, I like growing it, I like buying it, I like preparing it, I like eating it, I like feeding others, I even like doing the dishes. Food is wonderful, and the fact that we get to participate in its delights on a regular ongoing basis is pretty great.

Food does a number of things for us, it nourishes our body, feeds our spirit, creates community, and makes a mess in the kitchen. There are so many reasons to delight in it as we nourish ourselves. The simple sensuality of food, its appearance, smells, textures, and flavors can invoke unparalleled levels of satisfaction and pleasure. A full belly is arguably one of the most gratifying states a human can achieve.

And as people have known for thousands of years, we can use food as medicine. By adjusting our intake so that we benefit our body’s needs and minimize the harm we can cause by misusing food, we become the highest level of doctor. The medicinal properties of food are perhaps its greatest attribute – it’s an extremely relevant form of medicine. And contrary to some beliefs, using food to this end is not mutually exclusive with enjoying its many pleasures.

There are so many ways food can enhance our lives. We eat to survive, of course, we eat for health, to nourish our bodies and to nourish our spirit. Food is both emotionally and physically satisfying, and it serves as a social format for community and human connectivity, as it has for thousands of years.

Sharing food with others is one of the most basic of human connections. A companion is a friend, partner, ally, someone we’re close with in any number of ways. The word comes from the Latin root co-pan, which means “with bread” – someone we break bread with. Our people are those we share our food with.

Food is a social activity as much as it’s flavorful enjoyment, as much as it’s the biochemistry we need to survive. A good friend once described life as “basically killing time between meals.” And while I hope his life is ultimately more than just that, I like the prominent role food takes in his perspective.

Losing our way…

Yet despite these magical purposes food serves in our lives, despite all the creativity and enjoyment it can bring about, food has also somehow managed to become a significant source of illness for us. As our world expands ever rapidly, our relationship with food has suffered, and its preparation and consumption have evolved into something that is less than beneficial in a lot of ways.

Some of this is due to our culture’s predilection for profitability convenience. While food production in our modern mechanized world has increased innovation and availability, it’s also compromised the quality of what and how we eat.

The co-mingling of science with food production has been both helpful and harmful. We’ve increased yields and productivity while reducing costs, yet we’ve sacrificed its integrity and our own health along the way, particularly where production and marketing are concerned.

We’ve conducted an endless array of studies showing that whatever we’re interested in promoting is better, healthier, leaner, or whatever we’d like to believe. Every dietary trend has Good Science behind it – remember those guys standing around in lab coats a few decades ago telling us that margarine was better for us than butter?

As we allow science and profiteering to guide the state of food in our country, we seem to dig ourselves into a deeper hole. The result is that much of what we eat is highly processed items manufactured in food production facilities. There’s no shortage of books, articles, and films documenting what’s become of the state of food in our culture – check a few of them out if you haven’t yet, some of them are worth taking a look at.

Most of these changes are recent developments related to the advancement of industry and technology. Just a few generations ago there was no real difference between “natural food” and just “food.” It’s easy enough to see many of the large-scale cultural changes in the last several decades that have enabled much of the current food state in our country.

While it’s important to understand the large-scale logistical factors of how we got where we are, we also have to be careful about disempowering ourselves by focusing on external sources of our problems. Solutions come from understanding our personal role in creating health and/or illness in our own lives and within our families with the foods we eat.

What are we doing?

We’re eating convenience food. Americans spend about 6% of their annual personal income on food, that’s about $2700 per year on average, or a little over $7 a day. That’s groceries, unprepared food that we cook at home. In addition to that, the average American actually spends a slightly greater amount eating out. We drop about $240 a month per person eating prepared food, that’s about $60 per week, providing about 18 meals each week at an average cost of about $13 per meal.

Of course statistics can get easily mangled, you can present data to support nearly any argument you wish, but you can see the basic trend here – we spend more money, certainly by meal cost, eating in a more convenient and/or emotionally gratifying circumstance, such as restaurants or to-go food outlets.

Immediate gratification is a thing

Given our druthers, most humans tend to drift towards a certain level of short-term gratification. This country is extremely wealthy and well-resourced – we’ve got lots of stuff. Americans have perhaps the highest standard of living on the planet, we make up about 6% of the world’s population and we enjoy about 40% of its resources. And in terms of food, you can pretty much get your hands on nearly anything you can imagine eating in about 15 minutes or so.

And while there’s plenty of poverty in our country, and many people struggling to feed their families, there’s also an enormous amount of excess. Food manufacturing technology has significantly lowered the costs of food – we now sped about 6% of our annual income on food, compared to over 17% just half a century ago. And nearly 40% of the food we produce goes uneaten.

And of course amid all that convenience and excess, lies the issue of food quality, which has suffered significantly in the last handful of decades. The American diet is rife with high-calorie, low-nutrient food products, and as obesity rates nudge 35% of the US population, contributing to numerous health conditions, we can clearly see the effects it’s having on our health.

Food is Love

So what do we do here, how do we get this right? How many articles can we find lauding whatever popular dietary platform that will solve all of our problem? How many people have gone gluten-free without really even knowing what gluten is? Perhaps instead of searching the interwebs for the perfect food solution, we could try listening to the answers we already have.

I remember my teacher saying that the only person who knows what’s right for you to eat is you. We have those answers, we know them from our bodies and from our ancestors. Admittedly the path forward can get a little fogy at times, especially when we’re pretty far down the other road, the one paved with microwave snackables or paleo-cupcakes.

But if we can engage our own learning process, and we do a little digging around, talk to people, read a variety of books and articles, and start to formulate our own ideas, then we can begin to create our own meaningful process with food. Try some recipes. Cook with friends. Grow a little food, even just some herbs or greens in a window sill, and cook with it.

Try cutting something out of your diet for a few weeks, something you suspect deep down in the dark recesses of your mind might not be super good for you somehow, or something you know you couldn’t possibly live without, and see how you feel.

Ask a friend what their favorite food is, look up a recipe for that, maybe one you haven’t tried, and make if for them. Think of something you’d like to try, maybe a vegetable or meat or grain you haven’t had a lot of, and find a recipe that incorporates that.

How did your great-grandparents eat, what was their process with preparing food? Find a food that’s maybe familiar or traditional in your family or cultural background, and try something new with it.

Experiment a little, get creative, put some energy into your relationship with food. It doesn’t need to take up a ton of resources, time or money, but it’s worthwhile to actively engage with your food. Everyone loves delicious food, and the more you practice with it, the more you’ll love doing it.

Educate yourself as you learn to navigate your dietary process, and learn what foods are the best foods for you. Discover what makes you feel good. Over time you’ll learn more about what you like, what foods feel good to you and what foods don’t. Listen to your body, and refine your process as you go.

Roll up your sleeves and engage with your food, and before you know it, you’ll create the relationship you want to have with food, one that is a source of joy and health in your life, and for those around you as well.


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