In Greek and Roman times, food was considered more than nourishment; it served as elixirs or aids to stay healthy and prevent and manage the disease. Hippocrates, the Greek physician, connected the role of diet and disease. While some of his statements are not attributed to science, he did establish the possibilities of the nutrient-disease connection when he reportedly said, “Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food.”
In some areas of the world, food is still considered Mother Nature’s best medicine, and people choose diets according to their health-enhancing benefits. Think about the traditional Chinese diet, with its balance of yin (feminine) and yang (masculine) foods. According to the Chinese, an unbalanced diet could result in illness.
Supposedly, excessive yin foods found in vegetables can lead to weakness, and excessive yang foods found in meat can lead to restlessness.
Herbs and spices have long been recognized for their ability to prevent, manage, and even cure some diseases. For example, garlic and turmeric are used in some cultures to prevent some degenerative diseases and as remedies for others. Phytochemicals found in plant foods are associated with the prevention and management of certain diseases, such as beta-carotene in brightly colored orange and red fruits and vegetables. While not nutrients, phytochemicals have beneficial properties. They may ward off diseases, protect the eyes, and defend against the common cold, among other functions.
Functional foods have physical and psychological roles in the diet. Some serve as antioxidants and protect the body against damaging free radicals from sunlight and environmental hazards. Other functional foods help protect the bones, heart, and stomach, while still others help to reduce blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Some functional foods are also called nutraceuticals; they act as pharmaceuticals with druglike effects on the body.
Finally, the emerging field of nutrigenomics or personalized nutrition offers immeasurable promise. Nutrigenomics applies the human genome (the entirety of an organism's hereditary information) to nutrition and health for individual dietary recommendations. It uses a person’s unique genetic makeup and nutritional requirements to tailor-make recommendations for disease reduction and health optimization.
How can nutrition, food science, and culinary professionals apply their skills to the rapidly growing interests in food as medicine? They must first have a solid foundation in nutrition, food science, and the culinary arts. They should understand the complex roles that foods and beverages play in health and disease. And they should collaborate with allied health professionals to help translate the science behind medicinal foods into health-enhancing foods and beverages of the future.