If “food is medicine”, why not prescribe it?

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Published in e-hospice online on the 13th of December (click here)

People with a terminal illness often look for ways to help themselves. Dr Philip Lee, a consultant physician, who passed away in 2011 was treating people with metabolic diseases, many of who needed to make significant changes in their diets in order to survive. Following his diagnosis of metastatic lung cancer and knowing the therapeutic power of food, he changed his diet. See his video on the Help the Hospices website.

Dr Lee was an advocate of the consensus statement on nutritional care for palliative patients, now endorsed by many healthcare professional bodies to improve the training of staff in nutritional care.

Palliative care patients may also suffer from nutritional problems due to late consequences of cancer treatment, such as: anorexia-cachexia, diarrhoea, constipation, nausea, abdominal pain and other digestive problems.  A recent conference at the Royal Marsden Hospital considered dietary changes to help these problems, along with other interventions, e.g. antibiotic treatment of small bowel bacterial overgrowth, a major cause of diarrhoea or sometimes constipation. The wife of a patient related how after admission to a hospice her husband’s low fat diet for fat malabsorption was ignored. The sausages and other fatty food he ate worsened his symptoms of diarrhoea and abdominal pain. She could not forget his experience.

Recently, a hospice patient disclosed that she drank her own rice milk because of her allergy to dairy products. When told this ‘special milk’ could be provided by the hospice, she was astonished. She hadn’t thought her dietary needs would be considered part of her care. Other patients in the hospice told us how wonderful they find desserts in small shot cups. With their reduced appetite, they could now manage these portions and no longer felt guilty leaving food uneaten.

Over 2,500 years ago, Hippocrates said: ‘Food is medicine’. Even now research into illness rarely considers food as a factor in our health or recovery. However, there is a greater awareness and evidence:

  • The ‘China Study’ by Dr Colin Campbell showed that diet plays a major role in our health.
  • Michal Pollen in his book In Defense of Food says “don’t eat something your grandmother would not recognise”.
  • Even President Clinton has become a vegan after 2 major heart operations (watch video).

Food is overlooked, taken for granted and people say, without checking, that there is no evidence for food as medicine.  As scientists, our duty is to resist any prejudgement, to delve deeper and ask the question: can nutritious food be prescribed as medicine? After all, this is what patients want.

Dr Eleni Tsiompanou, MSc Nutritional Medicine