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Food is medicine

November 19th, 2014


Food is medicine

Medical nutrition therapy can prevent and cure many conditions

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

Back to the title, what I mean is nutritious foods don’t 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 and sugar pills as well as medicine to strengthen contractions of the heart muscle and medicine to control the beating of the heart. Some may also need pills for kidney conditions, joint problems and the 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 risk of many other diseases, so medical nutrition therapy is an interesting choice. Actually, heart diseases and other relevant conditions 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 lipoproteins (HDL), or 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 health 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 recognise him, as he had transformed from a plump man into a thin one. This is because he was scared of having heart disease again, and he heard that eggs, meat and seafood are bad for the heart since they are high in cholesterol. He was also a 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 appetising!

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.

In order to control your cholesterol level, there is nothing that you have to avoid, but there are things that you should eat less of. 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 arteries is to lower the low-density lipoprotein (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 by-products 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 imported 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 metabolises cholesterol is down to 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 themselves.

Eggs are among the most questioned foods, especially when there are new research findings. Recently, it was found that we can eat eggs every day without health risks. However, the people in this research were healthy individuals, not heart disease patients who need 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 items such as meat and animal by-products. You can even go vegetarian to be on the safe side.


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



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