FOOD AS MEDICINE: The potential for food to influence health and disease.

The idea of Food as Medicine began circa 400 B.C. with Hippocrates quoting “Let Food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”.  

So what have we learnt since then?

We have learned that what we choose to eat has a profound an effect on our overall health, and can influence our risk of disease.  

We know that eating a diet high in processed foods increases our risk of vitamin and mineral deficiencies which has been linked to obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol and blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers.  Damage to cells from free radicals can accelerate conditions such as Alzheimers, Parkinson’s, arthritis, and loss of vision.

In contrast we know that a diet high in whole foods reduces our overall risk of developing such diseases and acts as a preventative measure. This may be due to the presence of nutrients such as antioxidants (Vitamins A, C & E), phytonutrients, fibre, and essential fatty acids.

Effect of antioxidants on Free Radicals 

Antioxidants help to decrease the damaging effects of free radicals, some of which come about naturally due to normal everyday processes in our body such as metabolism and detoxification, and others due to exposure to environmental toxins such as smoke and other air pollution, chemicals, UV radiation and stress.

So, what are the key antioxidants?:
Vitamin C (Ascorbic acid)

Plays an important role in collagen formation, immune function, iron absorption (especially plant-based iron), neurotransmitter production and as an antioxidant to help quell damaging free radicals. 

What are the best food sources of Vitamin C?

Fruits – oranges, lemons, limes, kiwi fruit, strawberries, pineapple, blueberries, mangoes, tomatoes and capsicum.

Vegetables – especially high in green vegetables (spinach, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage), cauliflower, potatoes and sweet potatoes.

Vitamin E (Tocopherol)

The main role of Vitamin E is to protect the cell membranes from oxidative damage and is important in the maintenance of a healthy immune system, healthy skin, and vision. 

What are the best food sources of Vitamin E?

Almonds, sunflower seeds, avocados, wheat germ.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is necessary for maintenance of healthy eyes and vision, healthy skin, and a healthy immune system.

What are the best food sources of Vitamin A?

Liver, meat, eggs and dairy products.
Beta-carotene which is converted into Vitamin A is found in yellow, orange and green fruits and vegetables such as carrots, spinach and tomatoes. 

Phytonutrients; What are they and why are they important?

Phytonutrients are plant nutrients that have specific biological activities that support health.
Polyphenols, flavonoids, anthocyanins, omega 3 fatty acids, resveratrol, lycopene, and phytoestrogens are all examples of phytonutrients and have varying roles in the human body. 

Their importance stems from the some of the roles they play such as antioxidant activity, anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic, antiallergic, anti-aging, antiviral and antibacterial.

What are the main types of phytonutrients and where can you find them?

Anthocyanins – Blackberry, cherry, orange, purple corn, raspberry, and red grapes
Benefits: Anti-allergic, anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidants, and pigments

LycopeneApricots, papaya, pink guava, tomato, and watermelon
Benefits: Lowers risk of atherosclerosis and prostate cancer

Flavonoids – Berries, legumes, tea, grapes, olive oil, cocoa, walnuts, peanuts, spices, fruits, and vegetables, onion, apple.
Benefits: Anti-bacterial, anti-oxidant, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, and anti- proliferative

QuercetinRed onions, buckwheat, red grapes, green tea, and apples, oranges, lemons and limes
Benefits: Antihistamine, anti-oxidant, anti-viral, anti-hypertensive

Polyphenols – Cereals, legumes (barley, corn, nuts, oats, rice, sorghum, wheat, beans, and pulses), oilseeds (rapeseed, canola, flaxseed, and olive seeds), fruits, vegetables, and beverages (fruit juices, tea, coffee, cocoa, beer, and wine)
Benefits: Anti-oxidant, anti-carcinogenic, anti-inflammatory, anti-neurodegenerative, anti-diabetic, anti-viral, skin photo-protective, anti-allergic, anti-platelet, anti-aging, and DNA-protective properties.

Omega-3-fatty acids – Fish such as salmon, rainbow trout, mackerel, herring, and sardines. Plants –  soybean, and flax oils
Benefits: Anti-inflammatory, lowers cholesterol, reduces high blood pressure, protects from heart attacks, eases joint pains, fights wrinkles and skin ailments, and improves memory

PhytoestrogensSoybeans, miso, tofu, tempeh, flaxseeds (ground), sesame seeds, almonds, broccoli
Benefits: Anti-cancer, heart diseases, menopausal symptoms, and osteoporosis

Beyond the bowels – Aside from the obvious, what are the benefits of fibre?

Fibre is essentially the part of plant foods (fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes) that our body cannot digest.  The health benefit that most people are aware of is its ability to increase the frequency and bulk of stools, but did you know it can also help to:

  • Increase satiety which may lead to a reduction in overall food intake and weight loss
  • regulate blood sugar levels, reducing the spikes associated with processed carbohydrates.
  • Lower cholesterol by increasing its excretion via the bowel
  • Promote healthy gut flora by increasing its diversity which then increases the production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFA)
  • SCFA’s are important for maintaining the integrity of the intestinal barrier and protects against inflammation reducing the risk of bowel cancer.

If you would like to find out more about how Food as Medicine can benefit you both physically and mentally book in a consult with our Nutritionist Kylie now.


Barber, T. M., Kabisch, S., Pfeiffer, A., & Weickert, M. O. (2020). The Health Benefits of Dietary Fibre. Nutrients, 12(10), 3209.

Gupta C and Prakash D. 2014. “Phytonutrients As Therapeutic Agents.” Journal of Complementary and Integrative Medicine 11(3):151–69.

Makki, K., Deehan, E. C., Walter, J., & Bäckhed, F. (2018). The Impact of Dietary Fiber on Gut Microbiota in Host Health and Disease. Cell host & microbe, 23(6), 705–715.

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