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Food is medicine (Part I)

January 15th, 2014


Food is medicine (Part I)

Some might argue the other way round, medicine is food, as heart disease patients need to take a handful of pills every day (or three handfuls, following the three meals). That’s enough to fill half the stomach! Actually, it could be a way of the doctor’s attempt to help them lose weight.

Back to the title, what I mean is nutritious foods can not only ward off hunger but also boost your health and your heart. The right food for you can prevent and cure diseases just like medicine.

So, what exactly does “the right food” mean?

It’s a very interesting question, and the answer could be just what the doctor orders. Heart disease patients need a lot of pills such as anti-platelet pills, blood pressure pills, cholesterol pills, sugar pills, medicine to strengthen contractions of the heart muscle, medicine to control the beating of the heart, and perhaps some would also need pills for kidney conditions, joint problems and many other conditions that come with heart disease and age. Most heart disease patients are overweight, so they are bound to have problems with their bones and joints. Just look at the list. It’s quite a lot to take in.


If the doctor tells you what you should eat, together with taking these pills, you can cut down the amount (and cost!) of the medicine you need to take. This food prescription is called medical nutrition therapy.

For coronary artery disease, the patients are at risks for many other diseases, so medical nutrition therapy is an interesting choice. Actually, heart diseases and other relevant diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol problem can be prevented and cured with food.

Cholesterol problems could mean the level is too high or too low. For instance, if the level of High Density Lipoprotein or HDL, which is good fat, is too low, it can be unhealthy. If you eat the right food for you, you can control your cholesterol level very well. I do not guarantee that the right food for your food is the right food for your taste, though.

Let’s be clear that using food as medicine does not mean you cannot eat other things at all. A patient of mine had myocardial infarction, and after treatment, he came back to see me three months later. I couldn’t recognize him, as he had transformed from a plump man into a thin man. This is because he was scared of having heart disease again, and he heard that eggs, meat and seafood are bad for the heart, as they are high in cholesterol. He was also diabetic, so he had to avoid carbohydrates and sweets. He also steered clear of sweet fruits. All he ate was glass noodles as he believed they were better than rice noodles. He ate them with various vegetables, together with three handfuls of pills. How appetizing!

This is a bad example. If you eat everything in moderation, there is no such thing as forbidden food, except if you are allergic to it. That is forbidden.

In order to control your cholesterol level, there is nothing that you have to avoid but there are things that you should eat less. However, there are certain foods that can be medicine. We usually think about the fat content in the food regarding this matter. Now, let’s get to know the fat in the food so you can make better choices.

The first point of using food to prevent narrowed artery disease is to lower the LDL level (it should be lower 100 mg/dl or 70 mg/dl in people with heart disease). As for cholesterol, the most notorious fat, it is commonly found in animal byproducts such as meat, egg yolk, milk and dairy products. Egg yolk is high in cholesterol – one egg contains more than the recommended daily cholesterol intake of 200 mg/dl. We are talking about foreign eggs, which are bigger than Thai eggs. It is recommended that each week you should not eat more than two egg yolks. However, how well a person metabolizes cholesterol is an individual luck. Some people can eat anything and their cholesterol level is fine.  I believe the way you cook eggs is more important than the eggs itself.

Egg is one of the most questioned foods, especially when there are new research findings. Recently, it was found that actually we can eat eggs every day without getting health risks. However, the people in this research were healthy people, not heart disease patients who needed to watch their cholesterol level so that the LDL is lower than 70 mg/dl. I think it’s fine to eat egg yolk, but if you are going to eat it every day, you should cut back on other high-cholesterol food such as meat and animal byproducts. You can even go vegetarian for the meal just to be on the safe side.

Prof Nithi Mahanonda is consultant cardiologist and interventionist, Perfect Heart Institute.



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