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Let food be thy medicine

11-Jul-2005

A society that views food as taste-bud entertainment rather than a basic of well-being was always bound to run into health problems. But with obesity now afflicting 300m people, and diabetes set to reach similar numbers within two decades, the problems borne of food abuse are emerging as more than a glitch. They amount to a profound loss of direction in our understanding of both food and medicine.

"Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food," said Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine two-and-a-half thousand years ago. Yet today's medical profession barely works with diet, instead majoring in the prescription and distribution of high-power drugs, designed to right the wrongs of decades of body mismanagement.

Instead of scribbling off prescriptions willy-nilly, doctors would better serve the aims of achieving healthy patients by drawing food and diet into their repertoire. Now.

Not all health conditions can be alleviated through diet. But many can, and often without setting up secondary health risks.

Statin drugs can lower cholesterol, but side effects include liver damage and kidney failure. A diet high in unsaturated fats, soluble fiber and phytosterols also lowers cholesterol, but without the side effects.

This makes it a route that many would opt for. But most people are unaware that the choice exists.

That is because most of the information presented to doctors on the latest treatment methods comes from pharmaceutical companies, who devote gargantuan sums to promoting their drugs and offer perks to doctors who prescribe them.

At the same time, there is a dearth of up-to-date information on dietary approaches, delivered in an easily accessible and easy to impart format.

In a survey carried out last year by the University of Washington, Seattle, 66.5 percent of doctors said they wanted more information on weight management. In the same survey, many doctors also wanted to know about diet for the prevention of disease.

The challenge lies in actually getting this information to the doctors. The American Dietetic Association recently introduced a continuing education program through its journal to help them keep abreast of developments. But with heavy work loads and scant resources, doctors say they rarely seek out nutritional data for themselves. It seems they want information delivered directly to their door in bite-sized, ready-to-serve nuggets.

And if they don't get it, it is left to patients to identify a dietary solution. This opens up a minefield for inappropriate remedies. The consumer press is notorious for its sensationalist headlines, and most people are not qualified to sift through stacks of scientific research and use it as the basis for a sensible, informed course of action.

The go-it-alone remedy seeker seriously risks doing the wrong thing.

Instead, dietary advice for health issues should be dished out as a matter of course in every doctor's office.

If Senator Bill Frist gets his way, it soon will be. Author of the Improved Nutrition and Physical Activity Act (IMPACT) introduced last month, Frist would have federal funds spent on training health professionals in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of obesity and eating disorders.

Debate has been stirred in some quarters, most notably that of the American Dietetic Association, as to whether the money should be spent on educating doctors themselves or on tapping into the existing knowledge-base of registered dieticians, ensuring every doctor has a specialist to whom they can refer.

Doctor or dietician - let legislators hammer out whose lips nutritional advice should come from. But someone has to bring some health-care expertise to our eating habits. Before the health costs of inappropriate nutrition rise even further.

Our current attitude to food is far from the principles laid down by Hippocrates. The time has come for medicine to return to its roots, and to give everyone the means and the information to eat their way to better health.

Jess Halliday is editor of NutraIngredients-USA.com. She has worked across broadcast, print and online media in the United States and Europe.

If you would like to comment on this article please e-mail jess.halliday@novisgroup.com .