How big of a role does diet play in helping to prevent illnesses?
What about curing them altogether?
As a society, the West has come to believe that there’s some sort of pill for every health problem. It’s a myth that the pharmaceutical industry has fostered and that we – and the doctors who treat us – accept as carved in stone. But, while some pills are invaluable in treating certain diseases and ailments, we are wrong to equate man-made medicines with health.
In fact, the science of medicine and the basic common sense at the heart of traditional healing parted company three centuries ago when much of the western world turned its back on the teachings of Hippocrates, instead embarking on a course which led eventually to a wide acceptance of a prescription for a pill, rather than an individual life-plan to rebalance health. The reality is that we need not suffer many of our common illnesses – both physical and mental. The right food may not cure the common cold, but it could prevent one catching it.
Somewhere, as modern health care developed into a culture of the pill as a ‘cure-to-almost-anything’, the concept that illness could be prevented by non-medical methods was set aside, and with it the understanding that some of the needs for medical treatment could be removed by advising individuals on what each should and should not be eating; or how even a slight change of life-style can boost one’s health.
Just as no one size fits all, not all foods suit everyone. Cheese, milk, sugar and wheat are obvious examples – no two people are the same. And while it is widely accepted that we all need iron, and that calcium is essential for strong and healthy bones, iron and calcium are but two fuels for the many body systems – those systems that cannot function without specific plant minerals. So the punchline really is that if your diet is inadequate, some function may run down and illness will result. The reverse, happily, is also true; if one eats a well-balanced diet, as fresh as possible, illness risk is greatly reduced.
What many of us fail to accept, or do not grasp, is that eating is not just to satisfy hunger or stave off starvation, but that food nourishes the system. It is the fuel which allows the body to function and, just as poor quality petrol or diesel will lead to the poor performance of a car’s engine, so the wrong foods will hamper one’s health and lower the body’s natural resistance to illness. It’s a regime of food, much of it drawn from the world of plants – the fruit and vegetables which provide the minerals, vitamins and enzymes – that helps the body to function at its peak. Everyone’s system needs its own specific fuel.
This was something which, for centuries, doctors and healers had recognised and practised; something still accepted in many eastern cultures – reaching back to the ancient knowledge of Indian, Chinese, and even Babylonian civilisations – and which is gradually recapturing lost ground among today’s medical practitioners.
The early healers saw lifestyle and diet to be at the heart of both diagnosis and treatment. Diet can also play a major part separate from, and in conjunction with the modern regime of preventive medicine. And though commercial hype surrounding ‘specialist’ diets has given the concept a somewhat shady – and often controversial – image, its core principle is sound. With many illnesses you can eat your way back to health.
Similarly, in today’s world of daily stress, an adjustment to one’s life style can offer a cure for physical and mental health. But, in the long run, it is a combination of factors – diet, lifestyle, and understanding of when and why a change is necessary – that can both keep ill health at bay, or help cure it should it strike.
It’s an approach which not only plays to the advantage of patients, but could be massively beneficial in economic terms to providers of health services, such as Britain’s NHS and our own GHA. Last year the NHS spent £9.1 billion on drugs and pills – the cost of filling more than one billion prescriptions, according to press reports. An official audit found that many of these were not necessary. In care homes for the elderly alone, at least £200 per patient was spent on unnecessary medication.
And with most of us in the developed world living ever longer, where the elderly are often those whose treatment involves the widest variety of pills, a new approach makes financial sense …and would be to everyone’s benefit, other than the shareholders in pharmaceutical companies.
Perhaps it is time for the West’s medical profession to widen its horizons and consider a new approach (or a centuries-old one), explaining to patients that food and health go hand in hand.
There is a snag, of course. To assess the health needs – both preventive and curative – of an individual, just as the ancient healers did, the modern physician needs not only to prescribe a regime, but also help patients to understand, and that takes time. In Britain, the average consultation is expected to take no longer than seven minutes. In Gibraltar the time slots tend to be between 10 and 12 minutes duration.
So, initial pressure. But, as patients come to understand more, eat healthier foods and build barriers of prevention, the numbers seeking treatment should decline.
That’s surely worthwhile – to everyone.
BY DR GILLIAN SCHIRMER