Food as medicine | You are what you eat
A growing number of physicians are prescribing nutritious foods to heal their patients. But lowering cholesterol and boosting heart health is more complicated than simply eating an apple a day. That’s why we asked Colorado doctors, nutritionists, and other health care providers to guide us through the latest advancement in medicine: your diet.
Local physicians and health care systems are increasingly turning to food to stave off and treat disease—and so can you.
At some point in your life, a doctor has prob-ably advised you that to “be healthier” you should eat more veggies. Swap sweets for fruit. Drink less soda. While you may have believed her (and even had the best of intentions to improve your dietary habits), such vague missives aren’t exactly motivating. What if she told you, however, that trading your weekly burger for a grilled chicken breast could dramatically reduce your pharmacy bill—and even add years to your life?That’s exactly the message coming from piles of research showing that food is a central element in preventing, or even reversing, chronic disease. “I tell my patients every day: What we eat is a huge factor in our health,” says Dr. Marc Cornier, who teaches within the Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Diabetes at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and does clinical work through UCHealth at CU Anschutz Medical Campus. “I’ve seen diabetes go away as a result of healthful eating and weight loss. I had a patient who completely changed his diet—he didn’t want to take prescription medication—and lowered his cholesterol by 40 percent, which is what you might see from a statin [drug].”Uncovering the power of nutrition to transform health has pushed the use of food as a first-line therapy—before pills and procedures for some patients—from a fringe idea to a more mainstream tenet of health care. It’s also driving a philosophical shift, as health care systems consider using nutrition to intercede in patients’ lives before they get sick.
For example, this month Lutheran Medical Center (part of SCL Health) is launching an initiative called Healthy U for patients with chronic diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity, who are also food-insecure. The 12-week program will provide food for patients and their families, virtual cooking lessons, nutrition education, and weekly bio-metric screenings. “At one time, [addressing health] was just about controlling or treating disease,” says Chuck Ault, Lutheran Medical Center’s regional director of community health improvement. “But now, we’re intervening further upstream with the hope of keeping patients out of our hospitals.”
As scientists and physicians continue to explore the possibilities of food as medicine, don’t be surprised if your doctor is quicker to review your grocery list than to write you a prescription. Or, better yet, don’t wait that long: For the stories on the following pages, we’ve tapped local experts to learn exactly how you can eat your way to a longer, happier life, starting with what’s for supper tonight.
50% of deaths in the United States from heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes in a single year that were associated with “sub-optimal eating habits”—that is, not eating enough nuts and seeds, omega-3 fatty acids from seafood, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and polyunsaturated fats and chowing down instead on high-sodium foods, red meat, and sugary beverages—according to a 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
On the menu
From the doctor’s orders to your dinner plate, here’s how to translate the science of eating well into actual (delicious) meals.It’s one thing to know you should eat to protect your health. It’s another thing to choose, buy, and cook the good stuff. That’s where the University of Colorado Anschutz Health and Wellness Center at the Anschutz Medical Campus comes in: The interdisciplinary center offers all kinds of programs (fitness, weight loss, mind-body therapy, and even a series of dietician-led virtual cooking classes for $6 per lesson) for patients, people in the community, and medical professionals at Anschutz. But it’s up to registered dietician and manager of campus and community initiatives Lisa Wingrove to use the latest research about nutrition to inform easy-to-execute meals and recipes. “We can’t assume that people just know how to prepare food that’s good for them and appealing to them,” she says. “We have to create a bridge from the science to the table.”
Start with these five simple switches Wingrove recommends to get more nutritious bang for your grocery buck.
Doctor Says: Boost your brain health.
The Science: “When we look at research about Alzheimer’s risk and about [ways to support] mental acuity, we see that omega-3 fatty acids are very important. They reduce inflammation in the brain,” Wingrove says. “And the good news is, it’s just as easy to grill salmon as it is to cook steak.”
Also Try: Walnuts, quinoa, or flax seeds.
Doctor Says: Eat your veggies.
Skip: Your daily banana.
Serve: Roasted vegetables, such as asparagus and cherry tomatoes.
The Science: It’s not that fruit is bad, of course; it’s just that Americans tend to grab the proverbial apple (or banana) a day because we think vegetables take too much time and effort to prepare. Not so, Wingrove says. Toss just about any mix of veggies in a bowl with olive oil, herbs, and spices (a tiny pinch of salt is OK, too) and cook at a high temperature (420 degrees or so) for seven to 10 minutes. “Antioxidants and phytonutrients in vegetables work at a cellular level to repair damage that happens as a natural result of metabolism,” Wingrove says, adding that this damage might also be tied to certain types of cancer and other illnesses.
Also Try: Sweet potato with cinnamon, carrots with a drizzle of honey, or cauliflower with fresh chopped garlic.
Doctor Says: Your immune system seems weak.
Skip: The same ol' flavorless dishes
Serve: Alliums, such as onions, garlic, and leeks
The Science: “There’s tons of research that strong immune function is tied to a widely varied microbiome”—that is, the microbes that live on and inside the human body, many of them in the gut, Wingrove says. “If our diet is bland and unvarying, our bacteria in our gastrointestinal tract are bland and unvarying. For the most benefit, you want diversity of flora, and alliums help keep that flora varied.”
Also Try: Scallions, shallots, or chives.
Doctor Says: Have you thought about plant-based proteins?
Serve: Soy, such as tofu or edamame.
The Science: “Red meat is a cause of inflammation in the body, which is a leading cause of colon cancer. Plus, the fat in red meat is bad for cardiac health,” Wing-rove says. The Food and Drug Administration recommends 25 grams of soy protein per day to reduce blood cholesterol levels by about 12 percent, but Wingrove says that even if you only sub in one plant-based protein each week, “it replaces those bad fats with health-promoting fats.” The trick to prepping tofu is getting as much moisture as possible out by pressing it between a baking sheet and some-thing heavy (like cans of tomatoes) for an hour or more before marinating and cooking.
Also Try: Lentils or chickpeas.
Doctor Says: Reduce your sodium intake.
Skip: The saltshaker and processed foods—even healthy-sounding soups and broths—which tend to have high sodium contents.
Serve: Herbs and spices.
The Science: Too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. The good news is that there are plenty of other ways to flavor food. “I love Chinese five-spice powder on kale baked in the oven to make chips,” Wingrove says. “Be a little adventurous; you’ll be surprised by how many more flavors exist beyond saltiness.”
Also Try: Lemon and lime zest on fish or whole-grain mustard and Dijon as a marinade for chicken breasts.