Dan, wanting to only be identified by his first name, was 19 years old when he was hospitalized for schizophrenia. He was prescribed medication and gained 100 pounds, weighing a total of 340 pounds at six feet tall.
His treatment and his weight continued for over a decade until he began to change a couple key components of his life that he says have dramatically helped his mental and physical health—diet and exercise.
Five years ago, he began practicing karate and getting regular exercise. Then, his doctor, psychiatrist Christopher Palmer at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, supported Dan in cutting out most carbohydrates and replacing them with healthy fats—a practice known as the ketogenic diet.
Of course, Dan says it took some time to adjust to the diet, but after three years, it’s become a habit. Prescribing or eliminating certain foods to improve health is a growing trend in modern medicine and with good reason.
History of Prescribing Diets for Specific Ailments
For thousands of years, people have used food to treat illness. Even the ketogenic diet has been used for the last 100 years to treat children with epilepsy, a condition in which electrical disturbances in the brain cause seizures .
The ketogenic diet eliminates most carbohydrates (not just bread and sugar, but most fruits as well) to force the body to switch from using glucose as fuel to using fat, which has shown potential in helping specific disorders such as diabetes and obesity , .
Ayurvedic medicine is another type of medicine that’s been used for thousands of years. In an Ayurvedic approach, health and wellness are looked at as part of a balance between not just the body and mind, but the spirit as well. Numerous studies have supported the efficacy of certain treatments used in Ayurvedic medicine .
Traditional Chinese Medicine (sometimes referred to as TCM) has also been used for thousands of years to treat illness with a combination of herbs, diet, and exercise to improve health. TCM has shown promising results in regards to certain elements of its approach including acupuncture and Tai Chi according to modern research .
And, as many of us know, the Ancient Greeks also used food as medicine . We often think of Hippocrates, the Greek physician who lived in the fifth century BCE, who most famously said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
Recent Studies That Highlight the Role of Food in Illness
In addition to ancient knowledge that has highlighted the power of food in the role of wellness, recent research has continued to show how food affects our bodies.
One study showed how a compound that exists in food such as broccoli, cauliflower, and kale may be able to fight cancer by activating a gene that suppresses tumors . Other research showed that women who ate a low-fat diet had a lower risk of being diagnosed with and dying from breast cancer .
And in another, fasting for 15 hours a day improved metabolism and the body’s response to insulin, showing potential for helping patients who are obese . This type of daily fasting is similar to what’s done in intermittent fasting, where you only eat for a few hours every day, and Muslims also conduct this type of fasting during Ramadan.
All Bodies Are Not the Same—and May Even Process Food Differently
Dr. Palmer, Dan’s psychiatrist at McLean Hospital, says that the ketogenic diet shows potential in alleviating mental illness. He also discussed the role of specific foods in people who overeat because their brain is telling them they’re not getting enough energy—which he says is because some peoples’ bodies can’t process sugar as fuel as well as others .
Some people benefit from a different energy source, such as that seen in healthy fats that are the focus of the ketogenic diet. As the brain gets more energy from these foods instead of sugar, some patients see a reduction in their mental illness symptoms.
Dr. Palmer is currently involved in research around the world concerning the effect of the ketogenic diet on mental health.
Another study, taking place at Northeastern University in Massachusetts, is using data to understand the role of specific nutrients in the body. Albert-László Barabási, a professor and computer scientist at Northeastern, says that we only know how 150 different chemicals identified in food affect the body—and that’s out of the 17,000 we know exist .
He’s hoping we understand more from analyzing data from research conducted around the world. Professor Barabási says the goal is to give patients “very specific advice” based on their health concerns and how certain chemicals in food may be affecting them.
The researchers hope at some point, diet can be personalized so someone whose body doesn’t process certain foods well could be told to avoid them. He says this could lead to a regimen that “would be much easier to follow by most individuals” instead of changing their entire diet.
“Our Food System Is Making Us Sick”
For many people, including Darius Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, there’s zero question that something has to change.
Mozaffarian says even people who aren’t overweight are getting diabetes, cancer, and other health problems from the foods they eat. “Our food system right now is making us sick. It’s absolutely the number one cause of poor health in our country.”
While not everyone agrees on the specifics, most nutritionists agree that whole foods such as vegetables and fruits are healthy while processed foods such as processed meat and bread are unhealthy.
Still, the idea of prescribing a specific diet—or even just eliminating specific foods—to treat a health problem hasn’t gotten extensive support in the medical community. But that looks to be changing—doctors and patients alike are becoming ever aware of the role of food in our health, which is certainly promising news .
The Future of Food and Medicine
Dan, now 35, says this huge dietary change has supported a major difference in his life.
After three years on the ketogenic diet, Dan has lost 140 pounds and is on “about half” of the medication he was on when he first started doing keto. Dan says he feels great, much better than he did.
Dan also says he thinks diet and exercise are two elements that are “way overlooked” to improve “all types of ailments”. While it’s clear that more research is needed, and more awareness is needed of how exactly food can impact our bodies, I have to say I agree.
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